“Jane Roe” and the Anti-Abortion Movement Built on Lies


Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980 marked the beginning of an era in which Republican candidates relied on white evangelical enthusiasm to win, and he is considered by some to be the “father of the pro-life movement.” But even Reagan did not appear to hold genuine views on the issue; as governor of California in 1967, he had signed a bill into law that decriminalized abortion in the state, long before Roe v. Wade. Then as president, he said he regretted that move and suddenly opposed all abortions except to save the life of the mother. Under his leadership in the ‘80s, the anti-abortion movement radicalized—they ramped up protests at women’s health clinics, pouring glue into the locks and chaining themselves to the doors until they got arrested.

This renegade activism culminated in the first murder of an abortion provider in 1993—and that obviously wasn’t going to cut it as a lasting political strategy for a movement that called itself “pro-life” heading into the future. So they found increasingly deceptive, elaborate ways to manipulate people’s emotions about the procedure. In 1995, the National Right to Life Committee coined the term “partial-birth” abortions, and George W. Bush later signed a bill banning them, despite the fact that the term does not apply to any known medical procedure and is couched in language so vague that it could apply to any abortion procedure.

Meanwhile, Evangelicals were funding thousands of so-called Crisis Pregnancy Centers across the country, which lure scared pregnant women in with deceptive billboards and internet listings and even staff-members in fake medical garb, and then outright lie to these women to steer them away from abortions and even birth control. One woman said she was told at a CPC in Virginia that condoms don’t work because they’re “naturally porous” and that birth control causes memory loss and cancer.

In the late 2000s, the movement put Planned Parenthood in its crosshairs. An anti-abortion group called Live Action started sending undercover actors with hidden cameras into the family planning provider’s clinics, pretending to be a pimp and prositute looking for an abortion or some other wild scheme, and then heavily editing the videos for YouTube to make it look like Planned Parenthood was committing a crime. The most infamous of these, in which the group claims to have caught Planned Parenthood trafficking fetal body parts after abortions, dropped in 2015, giving House Republicans an excuse to launch a $1.59 million investigation into the women’s health organization. The investigation turned up no evidence to indict Planned Parenthood, but the whole issue was inflammatory enough to propel abortion into being a top issue in the upcoming presidential election. Donald Trump won that election, of course, thanks largely to evangelical Christians overlooking his lack of morality and eyeing that empty Supreme Court seat.

As recently as February Trump and Republicans tried to push the false narrative that women were aborting their babies after birth. “It is murder if you take the baby home and kill the baby at home, it’s murder,” former Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker said at a conservative conference in February. Trump tweeted that Democrats are “so extreme that they don’t mind executing babies AFTER birth.” Obviously, murdering a baby would be infanticide, which is already illegal.

The clearest sign that your movement is built on a house of cards is having to repeatedly lie to your supporters to keep them around. In reality, roughly two-thirds of Americans support abortion rights and would like to see Roe upheld. The Republican leaders trying to push anti-abortion laws are swimming upstream, and they know it.

On the abortion rights side, the message has been consistent: A woman’s choice to carry a pregnancy or not should be between her and her doctor, and perhaps her family, if applicable. No tricks, no sting videos, no deception. Perhaps McCorvey said it best in the film, after decades of being a fake mouthpiece for a movement trying to strip women of their reproductive autonomy.

“If a young woman wants to have an abortion—fine,” she says. “That’s no skin off my ass. You know, that’s why they call it ‘choice.’ It’s your choice.”

Illustration by Simone Noronha

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