Karen Swallow Prior on ‘AKA Jane Roe’ and the Humiliation of the Pro-Life Movement

Norma McCorvey in the FX documentary “AKA Jane Roe.” Photo courtesy of FX

Karen Swallow Prior will become research professor of English and Christianity and culture at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary this fall. Her most recent book is “On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life through Great Literature.”


Another day, another humiliation for the pro-life movement.

On ordinary days, abortion opponents are simply painted as backward barbarians who view woman as human incubators.

But on special days, critics argue that the movement is just a cover for darker motives, rooted in political opportunism and racism, its moral integrity compromised by that time when evangelicals (and even Southern Baptists) were pro-choice.

Last Friday (May 22) was another of these special days. That’s when FX premiered the documentary “AKA Jane Roe,” which covers the life of Norma McCorvey, better known as the “Jane Roe”of the 1973 Supreme Court case that legalized elective abortion.

The film depicts how, over the course of a difficult life that began in poverty and abuse, McCorvey went from being a young woman desperately seeking an abortion, to abortion clinic worker and abortion rights advocate, to Christian convert and anti-abortion speaker. The documentary’s much-heralded bombshell (given ample media coverage in the lead-up to the premiere) was McCorvey’s “deathbed confession” that the pro-life chapter of her life was all an act.

Even before the film aired, headline after headline heaped humiliation on pro-lifers. The Los Angeles Times reported that McCorvey had been paid to change her mind. This was misleading: McCorvey wasn’t paid to change her mind — she was paid to speak at pro-life events after she claimed she had changed her position.

But once the issue had been framed in terms of a pro-life movement “always built on lies,” as one headline had it (ignoring the fact that Roe v. Wade itself was built on the lie that Norma McCorvey had been impregnated by rape), such details seem like hairsplitting. Another news story crowed that the documentary “exposes the immorality” of the movement’s conservative base.

While the abortion rights champions who appear in the film don’t come out smelling like roses, pro-life leaders are portrayed as downright devilish. From among dozens intimately connected with McCorvey over two decades, the documentary cast two leaders as perfect caricatures. One is a Bible-kissing Flip Benham, who cattily responds to McCorvey’s “confession” by saying that getting paid to advocate for a view is little different from selling one brand of car rather than another.

Benham’s foil is Rob Schenck, a cerebral, articulate and remorseful former pro-life leader who himself underwent a three-part conversion that subtly parallels McCorvey’s: pre-pro-life, pro-life, pro-choice. He indulges the documentary’s intended audience’s sense that thoughtful people who are intelligent enough will, of course, eventually become pro-choice.

The narrow story the film tells about the pro-life movement — which embraced, platformed and paid McCorvey after she became a Christian and renounced abortion — is essentially that its leaders were too cunning, too dishonest or too dumb (and probably all three) to confirm or insist upon the authenticity of McCorvey’s testimony.

How humiliating.

Yet, paradoxically, humiliation is the essence of being pro-life.

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Source: Religion News Service