Protesting against art, even an anti-abortion film, is not a good look

Donald Clarke: Unplanned is a laughable atrocity but I’ll be with the other Centrist Dads

You do not, these days, often hear that thing Voltaire never said. Nobody with a sensible head on their shoulders is laying down their life to allow alt-right goons further opportunity to spoof “balance” on radio shows. Too many debates have got too dangerously heated.

There are, nonetheless, still occasions when one feels compelled to defend the right of ghastly material to take its place in the market. In the last week, protests have been staged outside Irish cinemas screening the anti-abortion drama Unplanned. Galway Pro-Choice described the film as a “dangerous piece of anti-choice propaganda funded by Christian extremists”. All this is true. It’s also crude, exploitative and more gleefully gory than your average cockfight.

For all that, the sight of protestors outside cinemas conjures up grim memories of the bad old days. More or less every anti-choice response made reference to the Passion of Saint Tibulus episode of Father Ted. How could they not? As the autumn closes in, the aggrieved wave banners outside wind-battered cinemas in the west of Ireland. The ironies curl within ironies to form complex knots. The unhappy Catholics have been replaced by unhappy representatives of a more secular nation. Both sets request that cinemas refrain from screening films they regard as offensive and insensitive. In the current case, the protestors are protesting against a film that takes the side of protestors outside abortion clinics.

It hardly needs to be said that the differences are as significant as the similarities. There are no efforts being made to “ban” Unplanned. Thirty years ago, the Saint Tibuluses of the world were, when visiting Ireland, confined to clubs and private cinemas. Granting a 16 certificate to Unplanned, the Irish Film Classification Office notes: “Gory scenes. These may upset some viewers regardless of age.” Other films so certified in recent weeks – thus placing the Christians in awkward company – include Joker and Zombieland: Double Tap.


There are no placards outside IFCO. The protestors are directing their efforts at the cinemas that have chosen to book Unplanned. This is a reasonable argument, but, however appalling the art under discussion, it kicks up uncomfortable feelings to see protestors seeking to shut that art down.

A comprehensive assault

And Unplanned really is appalling. Film academics still fret over how to address the technical advances in racist films such as DW Griffith's Birth of a Nation and Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will. No such concerns will gather around future considerations of this laughable atrocity. The picture details the trueish story of Abby Johnson, an anti-abortion activist who once held a senior position in (Boo! Boo!) Planned Parenthood. The picture is comprehensive in its assault on abortion, but that commendable non-profit organisation – concerned with all aspects of reproductive health care – comes under particularly focused attack.

Disgusted as I would be at any Oscar attention for Unplanned, Robia Scott deserves some sort of award for her blood-spitting turn as Johnson’s diabolical supervisor. It is a shame they don’t lower the lights, pipe in dry ice and sound thunder whenever she enters, but Scott is so impressively viperish that no such cinematic steroids are required. “Non-profit is a tax status, not a business model!” she cackles at a late stage. She (or maybe it’s somebody else in the organisation) is equally dismissive of the notion that Planned Parenthood is trying to decrease the frequency of abortions. “The French fries and soda are the low-cost, high-margin items. Abortion is our fries and soda!” the diabolical health-care providers quip.

Indeed, for a film from the American right, Unplanned is as disgusted by filthy money as were those depression-era cartoons featuring obese cats in top hats. The relish with which a Planned Parenthood staff member, retailing abortion pills, counts the wads of greenbacks would cause even Scrooge McDuck some discomfort. “Beam me up, Scotty!” a careless doctor says after completing a gruesome abortion.

All this would be hilarious were it not for the hazardous disinformation oozing out around the low-end melodrama. Unplanned features scientifically unsound footage of a foetus backing away from a probe. Buckets of improbably puce blood bubble up in volumes that – like the eviscerations in political stablemate The Last Temptation of Christ – seem calculated to generate both guilty thrills and righteous fury. The fleeting mention of “Soros” when assessing the enemy’s arsenal does more to place the film in Mel Gibson’s bestiary.

Yes, Unplanned is no more dishonest than a liberal screed such as JFK, but Oliver Stone wasn't offering viewers advice on their everyday health care. Though it will play largely to the already converted, it is reasonable to fear that some women may make unwise decisions based on the propaganda that runs through this idiotic film.

And yet. Protesting art is rarely a good look. If you’re looking for me I’ll be with all the other Centrist Dads.