Column

The ‘Pro-Life’ Movement Was Always a Con

‘AKA Jane Roe’ exposes how anti-abortion activism is built on mistruths, fabrications, and coercion

Photo shows McCorvey in front of Supreme Court steps talking to the press in 1989.
Photo shows McCorvey in front of Supreme Court steps talking to the press in 1989.
Norma McCorvey, “Jane Roe” in Roe vs. Wade, is the center of media attention following arguments in a Missouri abortion case at the Supreme Court on April 26th, 1989. Photo: Bettmann/Getty Images

A documentary about the life of Norma McCorvey — better known as Jane Roe of Roe v. Wade — comes out tomorrow on FX, tracking her life from a plaintiff in the 1973 Supreme Court case that legalized abortion in the United States to a “saved” anti-abortion activist. The big reveal? McCorvey, who died in 2017, admits she only allied with anti-abortion organizations because she was paid to do so.

According to the documentary, AKA Jane Roe, McCorvey received nearly half a million dollars in “benevolent gifts” from anti-abortion and religious groups, like the extremist organization Operation Rescue, in exchange for her public conversion to religion and anti-abortion activism. The partnership was hugely valuable for conservatives. “I was the big fish,” she says.

It’s a shocking admission, but not necessarily a surprising one. The “pro-life” movement has always been a con; this latest revelation is just another reminder of how deep that con goes.

Nearly every piece of legislation, every claim against legalized abortion, and every bit of anti-abortion activism is built on mistruths, fabrications, and coercion. It’s why they’ve published deceptively edited videos to attack abortion providers, and it’s why legislators falsely claim you can save deadly ectopic pregnancies or that women don’t really need abortions when pregnancy is endangering their lives.

Crisis pregnancy centers opened by anti-abortion activists and funded by conservative politicians, for example, advertise as if they offer abortions and misrepresent themselves as medical facilities when, in fact, they employ no health professionals.

These centers also use delay tactics — falsely telling pregnant women they’re likely to miscarry and not to waste money on an abortion, or lying about how far along a woman is in her pregnancy in order to run out the clock on a woman’s ability to legally get an abortion. The centers also frequently lie about medical and mental health risks, scaring and shaming the people who come to them for help.

It’s hard to imagine that McCorvey’s hard-luck life didn’t factor into her decision to accept cash in exchange for her outspoken critiques of abortion.

These scare tactics have made their way into legislation, requiring doctors in 18 states to read from a script of misinformation before performing an abortion — including false and debunked information about fetal pain, mental health consequences, and a link between abortion and breast cancer.

McCorvey’s story also tracks how anti-abortion activists prey on the most vulnerable. McCorvey had a tough life; a lesbian who was sexually molested and raped, she was tricked into signing away her parental rights by a homophobic mother. Even after she became involved with the Supreme Court case, she wasn’t able to get the abortion she wanted; she gave that child up for adoption. In the mid-1990s, McCorvey became a born-again Christian, renounced abortion, and got involved with the anti-abortion movement.

In the documentary, McCorvey says the affiliation was mutual. “I took their money, and they’d put me out in front of the cameras and tell me what to say,” she said. Still, it’s hard to imagine that McCorvey’s hard-luck life — she struggled with poverty and addiction — didn’t factor into her decision to accept cash in exchange for her outspoken critiques of abortion, a procedure she says she has no problem with in the movie.

McCorvey’s life and beliefs were clearly complicated, as lives and beliefs tend to be. But what is clear-cut, and backed by evidence, is that the movement to end legalized abortion has never been able to make progress by telling the truth. Instead, it has relied on deception to force certain values on American women.

“Understand that the radical right had to resort to tactics like paying people to lie *because* there was very little opposition to legalized abortion then and it’s a majority position now,” tweeted Ilyse Hogue, president of advocacy group NARAL Pro-Choice America, about McCorvey’s admission. (The vast majority of people in this country want abortion to remain legal and for Roe to stand.)

Ironically, the same people who claim to want to stop abortion also lie about the one thing that could decrease the number of unwanted pregnancies: birth control. In federally funded abstinence-only education classes, students are told that contraception can lead to infertility or birth defects, or even that condoms cause cancer. And for the past few years, there has been a concerted effort by conservative groups to reclassify certain kinds of contraception — like the morning-after pill and IUDs — as abortifacients.

And so McCorvey’s admission that she was paid to “convert” should be a wake-up call to Americans: Anti-abortion groups don’t care about women, or even how to actually stop abortion. They’re a movement that relies on deception for one reason: The truth doesn’t benefit them.

Feminist author & columnist. Native NYer, pasta enthusiast.

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