This is how anti-abortion propaganda gets into US cinemas

Amid open war on reproductive rights, anti-choice supporters of the new ‘Gosnell’ film want it to change hearts and minds. Will they succeed?

Claire Provost author pic
Claire Provost
31 October 2018


Cinema sign | Flickr/weegeebored. CC BY-ND 2.0. Some rights reserved

A police officer approaches a cupboard in a dark room and opens it, shining a light inside. His face contorts at what he sees. Another officer asks: “Is this normal?” The first answers: “I don’t know, I’ve never been in an abortion clinic before.” This is the opening scene of the trailer for a new film out in cinemas across the US: ‘Gosnell: The Trial of America’s Biggest Serial Killer’.

At first glance, it looks like many other cop and courtroom dramas. But this film is different. It was made by a pair of conservative pundits, commentators for right-wing outlets such as Breitbart and Townhall.com, with a track record of making films attacking “global warming hysteria” and critics of fracking and mining. With their new film, they've inserted anti-abortion propaganda into a formula proven to attract moviegoers: the suspenseful, true crime genre.

This is no accident; ‘Gosnell’ is aiming at wide audiences, and has big ambitions. “This movie will change hearts and minds about abortion,” claims Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B Anthony List anti-abortion lobby group. It shows “the brutality and inhumanity of abortion,” she said, “and it achieves this in a movie that looks as good as any Hollywood film.”

A movie that looks as good as any Hollywood film

‘Gosnell’ is just one of several anti-abortion films to hit US screens in the coming months, amid open war against women’s reproductive rights. It dramatises the story of Kermit Gosnell, a Philadelphia doctor convicted in 2013 of the murder of three infants after failed, illegal, late-term abortions, and of the involuntary manslaughter of a patient. He was imprisoned for life.

Reproductive rights groups did not defend Gosnell. They condemned him and warned that restricted access to safe, legal abortion is what drives women to such “back-alley butchers”. Meanwhile, anti-choice activists used his case to present all abortion as dangerous, and all providers as untrustworthy rogues, in campaigns for even more restrictions on these services.

The new film’s promotional posters feature a bloodstained image of the title character and the words: “THE DOCTOR IS SIN”. It uses classic character types, virtuous heroes who must battle their institutions to do what’s right, and some adrenaline-pumping music, to rattle viewers and present Gosnell’s case as the inevitable result of legalised abortion.

It’s far more sophisticated than holding a graphic image of a foetus on a sidewalk. But the film’s creators, Ann McElhinney and Phelim McAleer, are professional media-makers. Previously, they've done work for outlets such as the BBC. Although they have complained of censorship by movie theatres, movie reviewers and advertising departments, ‘Gosnell’ is in hundreds of cinemas.

It's distributed by GVN Releasing, a Sony Pictures partner, and stars Dean Cain, who millions of Americans watched on television in the 1990s series ‘Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman’. “It is not gory, it’s PG-13, it’s a ’Law and Order’ episode,” said McAleer, referring to the popular, long-running television crime series.

‘It is not gory, it’s PG-13, it’s a Law and Order episode’

McAleer also claimed that ‘Gosnell’ is “not a pro-life film. It’s a journalistic film”. Yet, these filmmakers have a clear position on this issue. They’ve celebrated Donald Trump’s administration as “amazingly pro-life,” for example, and met Vice President Michael Pence at last year’s anti-abortion March for Life.

Before its 12 October cinema release, ‘Gosnell’ was screened at US anti-abortion events and in Dublin, ahead of Ireland’s historic abortion referendum. The anti-abortion US group National Right to Life has called McElhinney a “dear friend”. At a Texas Alliance for Life event earlier this year, she said to applause: “There’s no such thing as neutral on abortion."


Ann McElhinney at a Conservative Political Action Conference | Mark Taylor/Wikimedia Commons. CC BY 2.0. Some rights reserved

The “true story” the ‘Gosnell’ film presents is that all abortion is murder and legalisation enables doctors to defy medical ethics. As writer Robin Marty noted on the NBC News website, this movie is “purposefully misleading”. Gosnell does not represent all abortion providers, just as paedophiles in schools or churches do not represent all teachers or priests. Nor are late-term abortions the norm: 91.5% of abortions in the US happen before 13 weeks.

Just as anti-abortion activists did during Kermit Gosnell’s trial, the film claims there was a “cover-up” of his case and a “media blackout”. It suggests that his crimes went unchecked because pro-choice people in power turned a blind eye to them. And it goes further. “‘Gosnell’ is a pro-life movie,” explained one writer for the conservative National Review, because it “exposes the fact that all abortion necessarily involves the death of a human being”.

This movie is ‘purposefully misleading’

Who funded this film? Its press packet says it was “primarily crowdfunded” – but doesn’t disclose its final budget or other investors.

The crowdfunding platform Indiegogo says the film raised $2.3m – with more than 15 donations of $10,000, one of $25,000, and many smaller sums including from chapters of anti-abortion groups from Nebraska to California. Another report cites $4m raised from different sources. This summer, McElhinney wrote about meeting an (unnamed) “substantial donor” at his house where “he asked if we could pray […] thanks to God that Trump was president.”

Behind ‘Gosnell’ is a whole team of conservative media-makers. Its executive producer has worked with Dinesh d’Souza on right-wing political films. Last year, its director guest-hosted the conservative Rush Limbaugh radio show. Conservative media personalities also helped promote the film – including Breitbart UK executive editor James Delingpole, who invited readers of right-wing weekly The Spectator to donate to the project.

In the US, Kevin Sorbo (who played the title character in the 1990s TV series ‘Hercules’), made a YouTube video encouraging donations. Sorbo and Cain have previously hosted editions of the annual 'Christian Oscars’ put on by Movieguide, a partner of the anti-abortion and anti-LGBT rights World Congress of Families. Movieguide, which also publishes film reviews, praised ‘Gosnell’ as “a compelling, well-acted drama from a pro-life moral perspective”.

‘A compelling, well-acted drama from a pro-life moral perspective’

There are large gaps in what the film shows its viewers, according to a 50.50 researcher who watched it in a cinema on its opening weekend. These include the stories of women who went to Gosnell's clinic, she said. Why were they seeking abortions in the first place? And how, in a state where abortion was legal, did they end up here?

The movie also doesn’t show what happened after his conviction – how new laws were introduced, amid pressure from anti-choice groups, that placed new restrictions on abortion providers. In Pennsylvania, where Gosnell operated, there were only 42 abortion-providing facilities in 2014 – an 11% drop from 2011 – and almost half of women lived in counties with no providers at all.

In 2018, further restrictions have been brought in, including in Pennsylvania. This is the context in which this film has come out – amid emboldened anti-abortion movements and open war against reproductive rights. During next week’s midterm elections, three states (Alabama, Oregon and West Virginia) will also vote on ballot initiatives that would restrict abortion access.

Next year, two other anti-abortion films are expected to hit US screens – ‘Roe v Wade’, about the 1973 Supreme Court judgement that legalised abortion, and ‘Unplanned’, about the reproductive rights charity Planned Parenthood.

So far, the ‘Gosnell’ film has made more than $3m at box offices. However, the filmmakers continue to present it as under attack, complaining that some movie theatres have dropped it, reviewers have ignored it, and they’ve struggled to place advertisements for it. McAleer said some cinema workers are also advising customers “not to go, that it's propaganda”.

Despite this, the film has “changed people from pro-choice to pro-life”, the filmmakers claimed in a recent email newsletter to subscribers. It also “saved a life", they said, when one group of moviegoers was “so moved and motivated by the film that they decided to go and stand at a nearby abortion clinic” where they “met a woman going for an abortion and […] inspired her not to go in.”

We're at “one of those rare moments in time when the pro-life movement has the opportunity to make serious impact on the hearts and minds of Americans,” McElhinney said. “So what can you do? Keep buying tickets.”

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