Abortion rights defenders in Canada have accused the country’s largest cinema chain of hiding behind freedom of expression laws in order to screen a controversial US anti-choice film which has been described as “anti-abortion propaganda”.
The Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada (ARCC) said Cineplex Entertainment has “made a decision based on money, not freedom of speech” by choosing to screen Unplanned.
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ARCC executive director Joyce Arthur said: “The movie theatres who are agreeing to show this film under the guise of free speech are publicly legitimizing anti-choice views.
She told the Guardian: “Why does much of civil society seem to think it’s still OK to allow public challenges of women’s rights in the name of free speech? That would never be tolerated if it, for example, were a white supremacist movie.”
Her comments came after the chief executive of Cineplex Entertainment defended his decision to screen Unplanned, a movie based on a memoir by Abby Johnson, a former director of a Texas Planned Parenthood clinic who has become a prominent anti-abortion activist.
Planned Parenthood has said the movie includes “many falsehoods”. Guardian film critic Jordan Hoffman called the film “a gory mess” before its March release in the US, while Variety described it as an “alarmist horror movie”.
In an open letter released Monday, Cineplex Entertainment chief Ellis Jacob said he made his decision to screen the film across Canada after receiving letters and calls on “both sides of the conversation”.
Jacob wrote: “Canada is a country that believes in and rallies behind freedom of expression, but that isn’t always an easy thing to do and it certainly doesn’t always make you popular.”
He said the decision was complicated and was not taken lightly, and that Canadians have the choice not to see the film.
Unplanned will have a one-week run in 14 Cineplex cinemas across Canada, starting 12 July. It will also screen in a handful of non-Cineplex theatres.
The film struggled for months to find a Canadian distributor. BJ McKelvie, a New Brunswick pastor who is also the president of Cinedicom, has said he took up the cause after hearing a message from God that implored him to distribute it himself.
Abortion has been legal in Canada since 1988, after Dr Henry Morgentaler successfully petitioned the country’s top court to rule that its abortion law was unconstitutional.
However, anti-abortion sentiment is growing in Canada. Last year, Maclean’s magazine writer Anne Kingston profiled the resurgence of the anti-abortion movement in Canada, noting that many of the country’s anti-abortion political groups have close ties to their US counterparts.
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A number of politicians and prominent Canadians have voiced their disapproval of Cineplex’s decision on social media. Toronto city councillor Gord Perks took issue with Jacob’s warning against censorship. “It’s not censorship if it doesn’t involve state action,” he tweeted. “Cineplex is all too happy to attempt to mislead people in order to defend their decision to show this movie.”
ARCC’s Arthur said she feared the screening of Unplanned could incite hatred and violence against Canadian abortion providers. “I know the clinics and sexual health centres in Canada are pretty worried about the movie. Basically they’re bracing for a wave of hate,” she said.