New York, NY-- New survey data shows that the virtual reality film Across the Line, which focuses on the experience of accessing abortion in America, positively influences the way viewers feel about the harassment that many patients, providers, and health center staff experience from opponents of safe, legal abortion. This data joins a growing body of research showing that virtual reality can arouse empathy by allowing viewers to experience firsthand the experience of another person.

Across the Line places viewers in the shoes of a patient who encounters protesters while entering a health center for a safe and legal abortion. Co-created by Nonny de la Peña of Emblematic Group and Brad Lichtenstein and Jeff Fitzsimmons from 371 Productions/Custom Reality Services, and executive produced by Planned Parenthood, Across the Line uses real audio gathered at protests along with scripted scenes and documentary footage.

“We’re encouraged that Across the Line can help people understand on a deeper level what some patients experience when trying to access or provide health care,” said Dawn Laguens, executive vice president and chief experience officer at Planned Parenthood Federation of America. "Virtual reality has the potential to be a game-changer when it comes to empathetic storytelling by challenging stigma and shifting the conversation about abortion access in America. By sharing Across the Line with more people around the country – both those who do and do not support safe and legal abortion – we hope to create opportunities for more people to talk openly and honestly about abortion and the unacceptable harassment that those who access and provide these services too often face.”

From January through April 2016, researchers from the Sea Change Program, an organization dedicated to transforming the culture of stigma around abortion, surveyed 284 viewers and intended viewers of Across the Line on their attitudes toward abortion and toward clinic harassment and violence. The survey showed that viewers who had seen Across the Line were less tolerant of a range of clinic harassment, including protests outside of health centers that provide abortion, than those who hadn’t yet seen the film.

Planned Parenthood also worked with the strategic communications firm SKDKnickerbocker in close consultation with Sea Change to interview people in Kansas City and Atlanta with moderate and conservative views about abortion, and found that seeing the film led to decreased tolerance for clinic harassment and increased empathy toward women who decide to have an abortion. More than three-quarters of people interviewed said that they would support legislation that keeps protesters away from clinics and two-thirds said they would more likely support candidates who support access to safe and legal abortion.

“We have suspected for a long time that virtual reality is a powerful medium which can incite empathy at a deeper level and also potentially shift opposing attitudes,” said de la Peña, CEO of Emblematic Group. “This study breaks new ground by showing that this in fact does hold true in the real world. With so many women facing increased lack of access to health care, it is exciting to see that our VR piece can have an impact around this issue.”

Across the Line is part of ongoing efforts by Planned Parenthood and other sexual and reproductive health organizations to reduce stigma and change the conversation around safe and legal abortion. By putting the audience in the shoes of someone who is trying to access a safe and legal abortion, virtual reality offers a new and immersive experience that can help people better understand what thousands of women face when they seek health care. Nearly a third of women in America decide to end a pregnancy, and a woman’s decision about her pregnancy should be respected and valued.

While an overwhelming majority of Americans believe abortion must remain safe and legal, the unfortunate reality is that too many women in the U.S. face barriers to sexual and reproductive health care, including safe and legal abortion. Since 2011, states have enacted over 300 abortion restrictions and more than half of American women of reproductive age now live in states where access to abortion is being restricted by their state legislatures.

Across the Line premiered at Sundance Film Festival in 2016 and received the Future of Storytelling Prize People’s Choice Award at the 2016 Future of Storytelling Festival, a SIMA 2017 Award for Best Sound Experience in the Virtual Reality Category and was recognized at the annual Media Impact Festival last year as one of only five interactive projects selected, and the only virtual reality film to be featured. The film is currently available for GearVR in the Oculus store, for Google Cardboard in the YouTube app, and for desktop viewing on YouTube. You can learn more about Across the Line and where to see it here.