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Two weeks ago, the news surrounding abortion was big. In a new documentary on FX, AKA Jane Roe, Norma McCorvey admitted that not only had she been paid off by the antiabortion movement but also that she had been instructed exactly what to do and say in her role as a spokesperson for the cause.

Norma McCorvey was Jane Roe in Roe v. Wade, the case that legalized abortion in the United States. Attorneys in Texas wanted to bring a case to challenge the state’s ban on abortions and were looking for a young, pregnant woman who had been denied an abortion in Texas and was too poor to travel out of state to get an abortion. McCorvey fit the bill and soon became the face for reproductive rights in America.

In the mid-1990s she suddenly went public with a change of heart — she announced that she’d become pro-life and soon became a fixture of the anti-abortion movement. The big shock of the new documentary is McCorvey’s admission, over two decades later, that she was paid by the movement and instructed what to say.

This revelation calls into question the authenticity of her conversion to the anti-abortion cause, long prized by many in the movement. And McCorvey herself expresses sadness and bitterness about being used in this way. I found the documentary and McCorvey’s revelation and reflections on the anti-abortion movement profoundly sad.

McCorvey’s revelation, that she was essentially a puppet for pro-lifers, isn’t a surprise to me. This is in part because my own research on anti-abortion activism has shown that the movement has rarely been afraid of fighting dirty or taking an ends-justify-the-means approach. At its formation, some key leaders prized consensus and coalition-building efforts to broaden the scope of the movement. These practices, however, largely gave way in the early 1980s. In fact, my research documented an increasingly extreme partisan stance and escalation in tactics.

The documentary makes it clear that Jane Roe was a pawn in this game — its biggest prize. But pro-lifers didn’t care about Norma McCorvey. She only mattered in as much as she could help them end legal abortion.

** Anti-abortion & Race **

In light of the events of the past 10 days, I’ve been thinking about how this is not too dissimilar from the movement’s approach to race. The movement selectively invokes race as part of its rhetoric without a deeper commitment to racial justice and equality.

Most frequently, abortion foes frame legal abortion as racial genocide, citing statistics about rates of abortion among women of color. On the surface this rhetoric might seem harmless, but in the end it does little to address the harm caused by systemic racism in this country. In fact, it lets pro-lifers off the hook from doing anything to oppose racism now — after all, they’re too busy protecting unborn black babies, right?

Black lives are simply a tool, another tactic used in service to the cause. Moreover, there is also the question of the movement’s ties to known white supremacists and a disturbing overlap in rhetoric, tactics, and supporters.

These tactics and rhetoric and the movement’s own problematic history are especially troubling in light of recent events. While anti-abortion activists are ready to invoke their values in defense of the unborn, they are decidedly less willing to stand up for black lives now. And even if they say they oppose racism, many are not so quick to take action to end it.

The vast majority in the anti-abortion movement continue to support a president who time and again has promoted his own racist policies and blatantly pandered to white supremacists. He’s pro-life after all so it can all be excused. His heinous actions otherwise don’t matter — it’s all in service to the cause. Antiabortion rhetoric about black lives rings hollow given the close alignment of the antiabortion movement with the Republican Party, a party that in the last fifty years has devoted itself to a range of racist policies and practices and to upholding white supremacy in this country.

If we return to the story of Norma McCorvey, we can see what the payoff of this tactic was — its cost in one woman’s life. In the documentary, Rob Schenck takes a rightfully remorseful tone when he hears the news of McCorvey’s claims. And he laments the way the antiabortion movement treated McCorvey: “For Christians like me, there is no more important or authoritative voice than Jesus. And he said, ‘What does it profit in the end if he should gain the whole world and lose his soul?’ When you do what we did to Norma, you lose your soul.”

That’s a sentiment more pro-lifers need to reflect on today — in being so single-mindedly focused on opposing abortion by almost any means and by relying on the support of the Republican Party and Donald Trump, what is being lost and how is the dignity of human life being diminished?

Allison Vander Broek

Allison Vander Broek is a historian of American religion and politics. She recently graduated from Boston College with her doctorate in history. Her dissertation, Rallying the Right-to-Lifers: Grassroots Religion and Politics in the Building of a Broad-Based Right-to-Life Movement, 1960-1984, explored the origins of the right-to-life movement in the 1960s and its rise to national prominence.

12 Comments

  • John Tiemstra says:

    Thank you for this courageous post. It is a shame that for many, the importance of Christianity to politics is reduced to this one issue. There is much more to the pursuit of justice and peace.

  • Terry DeYoung says:

    Thank you for this insightful and persuasive analysis, Alison. I too felt mostly sadness by the end of the documentary, and I also concur that in the end most pro-lifers who watch it probably will simply shrug and carry on as they have, which only deepens the sadness of it all.

  • Karl Westerhof says:

    This is gutsy and prophetic, Alison, and thank you for it! I pray for wisdom and grace and patience for you as you process the responses you receive. I especially appreciate your observations on the relationship between the two issues of Pro Life and racial justice. One comment that I think deserves more explanation is the assertion that the Republican Party in the last 50 years has devoted itself to a range of racist policies and practices. it’s such a loaded statement that it needs some documentation. Mind you, I don’t disagree with you, I just think that this is one of those prophetic pronouncements that calls for data. Again, thank you for your post.

  • Matt Huisman says:

    “Moreover, there is also the question of the movement’s ties to known white supremacists and a disturbing overlap in rhetoric, tactics, and supporters.”

    Margaret Sanger could not be reached for comment.

    “And even if they say they oppose racism, many are not so quick to take action to end it.”

    The stone cold reality is that all of the ‘action’ that you espouse has been an unmitigated disaster for black people. And it was done on friendly turf, in blue cities where loser Republicans don’t exist. Here’s the question you need to ask yourself – It’s been 50 years, why didn’t it work? The answer is that it was never meant to.

    • David E Timmer says:

      Odd that Margaret Sanger could not be reached for comment. She’s only been dead for 54 years. But if she could speak, she might note that the most commonly cited “quotations” that are used to tar her as a racist eugenicist are taken out of context, misattributed, or totally made up.

      See https://www.plannedparenthood.org/files/8013/9611/6937/Opposition_Claims_About_Margaret_Sanger.pdf for another perspective, with ample documentation.

      • Matt Huisman says:

        I missed this somehow. So the charitable reading here is that disparate impact is OK as long as it’s unintended. In eugenics. Got it.

    • Matt Huisman says:

      The modern liberal has four options to explain their failure:
      1) Confess that social science is incompetent;
      2) Confess that they have (unwittingly?) partnered with saboteurs;
      3) Confess that they are personally not able to live up to their own ideals;
      4) Confess that the ‘baddies’ are the problem.

      It’s an easy choice. Slander away.

  • RLG says:

    Thanks, Allison. You make a good point, demonstrating the lengths pro-lifers will go to, to give the appearance of taking the high moral road. Christians claim that abortion is the wrongful breaking of the sixth commandment of the Bible. But Christians make their own exceptions to the sixth commandment not to kill, such as in the case of self defense, or when it is the due consequence for serious crime, or as in just war, and for health reasons. But in conservative Christian thought there is no exception when it comes to abortion. It doesn’t matter if you are pregnant due to rape or family incest, or if you are so low below the poverty line you can barely take care of yourself let alone family, or if the unborn fetus (or child) has serious physical abnormalities that will prevent any kind of normal life. In principle, Christians will claim there is no exception to the sixth commandment that will permit abortion, and that the aborting of a pregnancy should be punishable by civil law, even as murder. And Allison, you are right in suggesting that this Christian moral high ground is the close kin to racism. It is an expression of religious prejudice, even a Christian supremacy.

    Of course religious prejudice, especially Christian supremacy goes back to the beginning of time. The Old Testament God (the Christian God) commanded the killing of all the nations surrounding the Promised Land, justified by the premise that those nations and tribes were no more than heathens. That’s religious prejudice. The Christian Crusades and slaughter of Muslims in the medieval age was based on the supremacy of the Christian religion over that of the Islamic religion. The Christian settlers of the Americas took not the land of native Americans, but also their religion, claiming the inferiority of native religions to that of Christianity. That’s religious prejudice. Every time we send missionaries into foreign regions, we do so on the premise of Christian superiority over every other religion. Even Christian attempts at personal evangelism is based on the superiority of Christianity over all other religions in finding acceptance with God. Christian religious prejudice, like racial prejudice, breeds more contempt than harmony. The Christian pro-life movement only adds fuel to Christian prejudice, which adds fuel to racial prejudice. So thanks, Allison, for enlightening us.

  • Tom Eggebeen says:

    Thank you for putting the pieces together … and reminding us that truth is always vital … and lies are lies, and when lies are told to promote what we might think to be a good cause, the cause is corrupted, and so are we. The “pro-birth” movement is filled with misogyny – the old definitions of womanhood: a wife, a mother, or a prostitute, never in charge of her own destiny, always a pawn of men. You very much hit the nail on the head with your comment about folks using their “concern” for black babies as proof of their non-racist, righteous, ways. And, I note, you’re an historian – all the more to your credit!!!! God’s Peace.

  • Harris says:

    The notion that those holding pro-life positions are indifferent to the questions of racial justice needs actual support, not a generalization. Without definition, or at least a citation from some spokesman, referencing “anti-abortion movement” is little more than a straw man, a figure of our imagination. After all, We know that few people hold simple views, but rather their’s may be a complex mixture of stances. It’s true for everyone. A better approach might be to look at whether explicitly pro-life supporters differ from the broader “Evangelical” category in terms of addressing racial justice. Given that “pro-life” includes substantial numbers of Catholics outside the Evangelical category, the easy link of anti-abortion and racial indifference may not hold.

  • Tom says:

    Wow, so the Republican party has “devoted itself to a range of racist policies and practices and to upholding white supremacy in this country.” And Karl W (who I know somewhat, and respect) agrees, but just feels this needs a little more documentation! It can’t be documented because it’s not true. Unless you believe that smaller government, lower taxes, school choice, opposition to abortion, etc. are somehow racist. (they aren’t).

    That view makes it a little inconvenient when trying to explain what happened to George Floyd and what we are now learning about the history of policing in Minneapolis, which is lengthy and bad. Please note before you start hanging blame that in the city of Minneapolis, the mayorship and every seat but one on the city council are held by Democrats – the extra one? held by the Green Party.

    Also please consider that exactly zero Republicans hold any state-wide office in Minnesota. And, lest you try blame the federal government and DJT (who, granted, says plenty of rotten things to attract blame even on the few occasions when he doesn’t deserve it), note that the institutions generally blamed for failing minorities – police departments, public schools, public housing, etc. – are administered by local and state governments.

    So, unless you’re ready to name as racist absolute support of public employee unions and a host of other planks in the Democratic Party platform, please put your big broad brush back in bucket. I know this blog leans leftward, and that’s OK, but the Reformed Journal should be embarrassed by this kind of crap.

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