February 7, 2023

In post-Roe America, it goes without saying that there are a lot of obstacles to obtain an abortion. But even before legislation outlawed the procedure in certain states and made it difficult to access across the country, pro-choice activists have been fighting a lack of information.

Abortion can bring up so many questions: Where can I get one? When is the soonest I can get it? How expensive will it be? Is it safe? How do I talk to my partner about it? If I go to a clinic, will there be protesters there? Does getting an abortion make me a bad person? The organization Plan C aims to disseminate clear, correct knowledge about access to medication abortions, including which online pharmacies are legit and who you can call with questions during the process.

It’s a shame, then, that “PLAN C,” a Sundance-premiering documentary about the organization’s efforts, is so lacking in cogent information. The patients, experts, and tireless doctors and activists who director Tracy Droz Tragos (“Rich Hill,” “Abortion: Stories Women Tell”) interviews are dedicated and admirable, but this documentary’s humanity comes at the expense of basic facts.

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The film’s main subject is Francine Coeytaux, a women’s health advocate, public health specialist, and co-founder of Plan C. The documentary follows Coeytaux as she, along with a whole team of providers and advocates, organizes to help women all over the U.S. access abortion pills online. The film spans from 2019 to 2022, showing how this ragtag feminist cartel navigates COVID and, eventually, the fall of Roe v. Wade. 

Tragos primarily observes these organizers as they go about their day-to-day lives, often assisting patients from within their own homes. You see their pets, their partners, their books. (On Coeytaux’s shelf: “She Said” and “The New Civil War: The Psychology, Culture, and Politics of Abortion.”)

It paints a charming picture: Frances Morales, who works for the mobile abortion provider Just the Pill, plays pool with her wife between consultations; Dr. Leah Torres, a clinic provider, pauses mid-interview to go give a patient mifepristone. In one truly serotonin-boosting scene, Coeytaux’s husband says that when he dies, his epitaph should simply read, “He was married to Francine Coeytaux.”

But “PLAN C” is so invested in immersing you in the lives of its subjects that it doesn’t tell you much about their roles in the broader structure of medication-abortion activism. The film jumps nonsensically from members of one organization to another with no connective tissue.

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You get a vague idea of what Plan C does, because they are the focus of the film, but other names like Access Aid, Just the Pill, and the Miscarriage and Abortion Hotline flash by without context. It’s easy to lose track of who works where and how they’re all connected. The events of the film are similarly vague: in one standout instance, Twitter users are apparently complaining about Plan C, but the film never tells you why.

Most egregiously, “PLAN C” provides no explicit information about how medication abortions work. You get a sense of the procedure from the doctors’ consultations with patients, but a lack of any clear-cut overview — these are what pills are used, this is what they do, this is their basic legislative history — leaves laypeople in the dark.

The medications used in these procedures, mifepristone and misoprostol, are named offhand by the film’s experts. If you have trouble keeping your complex m-words straight, you likely won’t even realize that these are two separate medications. There is some discussion of how to take them, but little information about what that experience might be like, or how one’s body might respond. One of Plan C’s TikToks is more informative on those topics than this entire documentary.

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Even the things you can glean about medication abortions from “PLAN C” may still be murky. In an interview, Dr. Torres describes mifepristone as “safer than Tylenol” (a claim that also features on Plan C’s TikTok). A cursory investigation shows that this is apparently gesturing to the fact that Tylenol overdoses can cause liver failure, and then — rarely — lead to death. One study found that 5.2% of women who had medication abortions experienced complications. More than 60 million Americans consume acetaminophen on a weekly basis, but a 2015 study found that acetaminophen toxicity accounted for less than 0.1% of emergency room visits. Of course, a much larger population takes Tylenol more frequently than women take abortion pills. This is not to say that medication abortions are dangerous, nor that Tylenol poisoning is negligible, but they are, it seems, apples and oranges.

Most of the oversights in “PLAN C” are simpler. A few infographics or extended talking heads explaining the procedure and the web of networks hoping to facilitate it would not have been missed. But this film focuses on politicized pathos far more than medicine. Where there could have been more talk about how these new laws work, for instance, there’s a random cut to footage of the Jan. 6 Capitol attack. The line between science and activism feels blurrier than necessary, making it difficult not to wonder, uncomfortably, whether these workers and providers are operating on facts or fanaticism.

Undoubtedly, the work chronicled here is helping women escape pregnancies that may ruin or even end their lives. Some of the most affecting moments in this film come via patient testimony. The issue is not that the filmmakers wanted to follow these organizers but rather that they seem more interested in their personalities than their work. The women depicted here labor tirelessly to help patients navigate our increasingly treacherous political landscape. Unfortunately, “Plan C” doesn’t properly equip viewers for the journey.

“PLAN C” makes its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.

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