NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE G Q columnist Laura Bassett uses the news about Norma McCorvey — that the Jane Roe of Roe v. Wade apparently renounced her renunciation of abortion at the end of her life — to say that the pro-life movement is based on lies. Any gigantic and decades-long social and political movement will of course feature some lies and some honest falsehoods. That’s true of both the pro-choice and the pro-life movements.
A central argument for abortion liberalization before and since Roe has been that 5,000 to 10,000 women were dying annually from illegal abortions. Bernard Nathanson, a founder of NARAL who later switched sides on the issue, confessed that he knew at the time this claim was false. That lie remains influential in today’s debate. The main argument from supporters of abortion during the legislative debate over partial-birth abortion, meanwhile, was that it was a rare procedure undertaken only in cases of severe health problems. Ron Fitzsimmons, the executive director of the National Coalition of Abortion Providers, admitted that he had “lied through [his] teeth” in making that claim. I can’t think of any equivalent lie from the pro-life side; but these lies from pro-choicers would certainly have to be registered in any full accounting of the contending forces’ relative honesty.
On to Bassett’s column. Let’s take some of its claims one by one.
1) “As it turns out, [McCorvey’s] conversion was all a big lie, bought and paid for by the Christian right.” How could Bassett possibly know? McCorvey spent years as a prominent supporter of abortion, then spent years as a prominent opponent, and then repudiated that second phase of her public fame. Was she lying during that second set of years? Was she lying at the end? Did she change her mind and then change it back? Bassett is so eager to use McCorvey’s posthumous turn as a weapon against pro-lifers that she doesn’t pause to consider that her witness is, on her own testimony, unreliable even on the question of what she herself thought.
2) “George Wallace, the longtime Republican governor of Alabama, four-time presidential candidate and outspoken segregationist who is often compared to Donald Trump, backed the legalization of abortion in the late 1960s because he claimed black women were ‘breeding children as a cash crop’ and taking advantage of social welfare programs.” It’s to Bassett’s limited credit that she acknowledges these unsavory pro-choice views, which lingered well past the 1960s. (Research some past statements by pro-choice lawyer Ron Weddington and Ruth Bader Ginsburg if you doubt this.) But while Wallace was many things, he was never a Republican. [GQ corrected this error after I wrote this article but before it was published.–RP]
3) Bassett tries to suggest that the pro-life movement originated because white Evangelical Christians were upset about racial desegregation. But her own story undermines the indictment. Desegregation upset Jerry Falwell Sr., she writes. But then she quotes someone else noting that white Evangelicals could not be mobilized based on that issue, and she says that Paul Weyrich tried a number of other issues to get them involved. Abortion worked. In other words, a lot more Evangelicals were fired up to fight abortion than were fired up to defend segregation. That’s supposed to reflect badly on them?
4) Bassett claims that Ronald Reagan did not genuinely oppose abortion, since he signed a liberalization law as governor of California. “Then as president, he said he regretted that move and suddenly opposed all abortions except to save the life of the mother.” Her chronology is wrong — Reagan had switched positions in public by at least four years before his presidency, and reportedly expressed private regrets a dozen years before it — and makes no sense given the rest of her narrative (which treats the pro-life stance as key to his becoming president in the first place, rather than a sudden post-election development). She provides no evidence for thinking that Reagan was lying when he said he had changed his mind.
5) “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.” Pro-life prosecutors have never attempted to use this law to prohibit all abortions because they know that the term, as defined in federal law, is too specific for Bassett’s theory to fly in court.
“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.” I’d say it’s a bit more telling that, for example, NARAL has changed its name so that it no longer includes the word “abortion.” But leave the broader argument over abortion to one side. What Bassett’s column indicates is that GQ does not think its readers deserve anything better than phoned-in, historically illiterate nonsense.