According to a new documentary, Norma McCorvey, a.k.a. “Jane Roe” of Roe v. Wade, made a deathbed confession that her pro-life conversion and activism was all an act, funded by anti-abortion organizations. I had a few off-the-record conversations with McCorvey over the years, and nothing in those chats felt scripted to me. You can never really know, I suppose. My guess is that McCorvey was a troubled woman, thrown into the middle of one of the most contentious Supreme Court cases in history, who shifted her positions in search of public approval.
Whatever the case, her later stances have no bearing on the debate over abortion. The fact that pro-life groups paid McCorvey to speak is not a big revelation nor a big deal. Nor do her vacillating claims tells us anything valuable about the constitutional validity of Roe v. Wade or the morality of dispensing with human life for convenience.
Yet Laura Bassett at GQ would have her readers believe that McCorvey’s deathbed admission tells us everything Americans need to know about the pro-life movement.
Bassett’s baffling and ahistorical central claim is that pre-Reagan Republicans were pro-abortion because they were racists and post-Reagan Republicans were pro-life also because they were racists — which is quite convenient.
For starters, there’s a historical problem embedded in the thesis:
Before Roe, Republicans and white evangelicals generally supported abortion rights, much in the way libertarians do now, because to them it meant fewer mothers and children dependent on the government for support. Segregationists, meanwhile, had their own racist reasons. 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.
Indeed, Wallace shared many of the racist and eugenic attitudes of early progressives, and was a long-time Democrat. GQ has since corrected the mistake, depriving Bassett’s piece of its central premise. Not to worry. Contemporary liberals like to designate Wallace the forefather of modern conservatism because it comports with their favored ugly stereotypes, but it’s a rickety argument. Between the years 2012 and 2016, for example, black mothers in the city of New York terminated 136,426 pregnancies and gave birth to only 118,127 babies. Perhaps the rhetoric from Democrats justifying abortion is different, but the results would have greatly pleased the former governor of Alabama.
Bassett then turns to the late 1970s to close the circle, and the results are no better. Jerry Falwell, Paul Weyrich, and other movement conservatives, she claims, would abandon outright racism and troll for another powerful issue to galvanize grassroots “white evangelicals” who wanted to “keep schools white.” (Modern progressives believe their obsession with race is shared by everyone, living and dead.) Someone forgot to tell the March for Life organizers, who first marched in 1974, to wait around for Weyrich.
It should also be noted that it’s misleading to claim that there’s a consensus among “libertarians” on abortion when the most well-known among them — Ron and Rand Paul and Justin Amash, for example — are pro-life. This fact might escape the attention of political reporters unaware that George Wallace was a Democrat.
Then again, there’s no angle from which Bassett’s case makes any sense. Only a couple of paragraphs before pointing to alleged astroturfing, she maintains that evangelicals had “supported abortion rights.” (Never once does she mention the role of the Catholic Church.) Suddenly these once-reasonable evangelicals are coaxed, en masse, into adopting a thinly veiled pro-life advocacy to further their bigotry. Why opposing abortion should be considered an act of racism is never revealed to us.
Bassett admits there was a spike in concern over rising abortions after the Supreme Court concocted the right to have one, and then coerced every state to accept it. Yet, to make it appear that this unease is disingenuous and partisan, Bassett simply skips 13 years of history:
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.
No, 1967 to 1980 is not “suddenly.” What’s more, Reagan did not abruptly announce in 1980 that he was pro-life. In 1968, one year after signing the California bill, which was more complicated than mere “decriminalization,” Reagan reportedly told Lou Cannon that he regretted his decision, and it “the only time as governor or president that Reagan acknowledged a mistake on major legislation.” When abortion skyrocketed in the state, Reagan was left with an “undefinable sense of guilt.” By 1970, when California legislators tried to pass another bill loosening abortion restrictions, Reagan supported the ultimately successful effort to stop them.
There was nothing abrupt about the conservative movement’s pro-life turn.
Bassett gives no credence to the notion that there might be a good-faith disagreement on the issue. Instead she relies on revisionism, conspiracies, and claims of racism. To admit that one can evolve to a “genuine” pro-life position without being manipulated or paid would mean engaging in an argument about the morality and science of abortion. That’s a debate abortion advocates will lose.