Virtual reality can help you feel more empathy for women harassed at abortion clinics

It’s hard to understand what it feels like to be confronted or bullied outside a women’s health center — until it happens to you. 

I’d never had that experience until last year, while reporting on the Supreme Court case Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt. Before visiting the Whole Woman’s Health clinic in San Antonio, I expected some type of encounter. 

What I couldn’t anticipate was the surge of adrenaline and mild panic I felt when, after I opened my car door, a middle-aged man wearing sunglasses thrust pamphlets at me and said, “There’s a lot of killing that goes on in there.” 

I wasn’t there for an abortion or any of the routine gynecological services offered by Whole Woman’s Health, but I felt threatened and intimidated. I can only guess how the exchange might have affected me had I been a patient who lived nearby.

We don’t know how many people have this experience, but a 2013 survey of abortion clinic providers found that 92 percent were concerned about the safety of patients when they approached their facilities. And Planned Parenthood wants more of the public to understand it in a way it never has before.

That’s why the nonprofit organization — whose clinics see their share of anti-abortion rights protesters — created a virtual reality film called Across the Line last year to simulate a trip to a women’s health clinic punctuated by painful encounters with protesters. Now, new research suggests it’s having a positive impact.

A still image from 'Across the Line.'

A still image from ‘Across the Line.’

Image: Planned Parenthood / ACROSS THE LINE

Across the Line uses 360-degree video and computer-generated imaging to place the viewer in the body of someone entering a clinic to receive abortion care. The experience draws on real audio of people shouting, documentary footage, and scripted scenes. 

Seeing the experience unfold in virtual reality was jarring for some.

“In the early viewings [of the film] you’d have to counsel people … to stay with it for a minute and imagine this is someone you love going through this,” says Molly Eagan, vice president of Planned Parenthood Experience and an executive producer of Across the Line.

“Who is going to walk through a group of protestors and subject themselves to that?”

Planned Parenthood hoped that the film, which it showed last year to film festival participants and to dozens of people with moderate-to-conservative views on abortion, would increase empathy for people who have abortions, reduce tolerance for bullying, and even prompt people to act supportively by, for example, becoming a clinic escort or advocating for certain types of legislation. 

Virtual reality is generally thought to cultivate empathy, but Planned Parenthood now has preliminary research to suggest that it can achieve that and more.

The researchers, commissioned by the nonprofit, randomly split up viewers into two groups. In one group, people were surveyed about their views on clinic harassment before they watched the film; in the other, people were surveyed after. 

The results showed that the group that had seen the film before they were surveyed expressed more disapproval of clinic harassment than those who hadn’t yet watched it. They were also more inclined to dislike certain types of behavior, including individuals photographing patients, and protesters who demonstrated outside clinics.

A scene from 'Across the Line.'

A scene from ‘Across the Line.’

Image: Planned Parenthood / Across the Line

The people who saw the film at festivals last year were predominantly highly educated white men who identified as somewhat or very liberal.

When the researchers conducted comprehensive interviews in Kansas City and Atlanta, however, they largely spoke to women between the ages of 20 and 45 who never had an abortion and held moderate political beliefs. 

After watching the film, those participants were more empathetic toward women seeking an abortion and were open to talking about clinic bullying with friends. They were also willing to sign a petition against harassment on social media, though they were less interested to share it with their networks. Few said they would volunteer to escort women through crowds of protesters. 

“They were very upset because they didn’t realize this was the level of harassment their loved ones may have endured.” 

Eagan says the encouraging results give Planned Parenthood useful information on how to shape public opinion of clinic protests. In the past year, the film has been distributed to college campuses across the country. Planned Parenthood affiliates also have discussion guides complete with a Google Cardboard VR set, which can be used to view the film. 

Planned Parenthood is in the early stages of showing the film to legislatures and law enforcement groups so that policymakers and police officers, who often regulate clinic protests, better understand the effects of harassment. 

The stigma surrounding abortion, Eagan says, typically keeps people from talking about their experiences at clinics, which in turn means their family and friends don’t fully grasp what it’s like to encounter protesters. 

Even liberal viewers often had little knowledge of the kinds of harassment that can occur at a women’s health clinic. 

“They were very upset,” Eagan says, “because they didn’t realize this was the level of harassment their loved ones may have endured.” 

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Updated: May 19, 2017 — 11:30 pm

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