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Fetal Rites | What We Can Learn from Fifty Years of Anti-Abortion Propaganda

S.C. Cornell

The strongest argument against abortion is not an argument at all. It’s the image of the fetus — tiny feet, perky nose, pre-melanin skin — and of its often grisly death. The persuasive potential has been clear for over a century; Progressive-era anti-abortion doctors toured the country with glass slides featuring embryos and fetuses at various stages of development. In 1910, a Missouri gynecologist expressed his hope that an enlarged picture of a six-week-old embryo “would keep many women from having an abortion done.” 

Most Americans would not, however, see a fetus for decades: ultrasounds became widespread only in the 1970s. It was a revelation when Life debuted a “living eighteen-week-old fetus shown inside its amniotic sac” on its April 1965 cover. The fetus in question had actually been either miscarried or aborted and was photographed outside the womb. If alive, it had only seconds to live. But this was easy to miss. The colors were otherworldly, the fetus adorable, and the magazine’s banner, conveniently enough, read LIFE in large print. The issue sold faster than any before or since: eight million copies in four days. 

Those opposed to abortion were thrilled to learn that something only eighteen weeks into gestation looked so much like a baby. Early Catholic sanctity-of-life arguments had been rather dry — for the theologically unconvinced, it was hard to get worked up about a fertilized egg, and even harder to oppose “abortifacient contraception.” Here, finally, was an ecumenical, even atheistic argument: you don’t have to believe in any God to recognize an arm not so different from your own. Anti-abortion activists began to obtain pictures of aborted fetuses from doctors sympathetic to the cause. By 1971, Jack and Barbara Willke, a doctor and nurse who taught abstinence-only sex education, had collected enough to publish their Handbook On Abortion, which sold some 1.5 million copies. They later chose the most alarming pictures for a pamphlet titled Life or Death, which reached hundreds of thousands more readers. At eight weeks, the pamphlet declares of the fetus, “he swims freely in the amniotic fluid with a natural swimmer’s stroke.” Below the text is a picture from an abortion at ten weeks: a tiny dismembered arm resting on clotted blood. 

In 1970, the Reverend Paul Marx got his hands on a video of a vacuum aspiration abortion — doctors, pleased by the first-trimester procedure’s low risk to their patients, had made it for training purposes — and showed it to a group of Catholic college students. “This kind of film,” Marx later wrote excitedly to his bishop, “is worth hours of lecturing.” Jack Willke bought a separate video of the same procedure, which he edited and narrated over for maximum pathos. The money shot was when visible bits of tissue, which Willke describes as “parts of the baby,” come whipping through the vacuum tube. By 1972, the Willkes, sometimes called the patriarch and matriarch of the pro-life movement, were lecturing with graphic slides before 70,000 people a year. 

Videos of actual abortions would be shown to countless students, and not only at the kinds of Catholic prep schools attended by six members of the current Supreme Court. (These are: Clarence Thomas, John Roberts, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, Amy Coney Barrett, and Sonia Sotomayor.) I first learned of dilation and evacuation a procedure used in the second trimester to clear the uterus in cases of both abortion and miscarriage — when a horrified soccer teammate told me that babies were being cut up and torn out of the womb with forceps. She had been shown a video of the procedure in her public high school. 

Also useful to the Willkes were pictures from later-term abortions that depicted intact, and distinctly infant-like, fetuses. Abortions after 21 weeks were and are rare — they amount to about one percent of all abortions — and are almost always undertaken because of a dangerous pregnancy, a severe fetal abnormality, or barriers to accessing an earlier abortion. But from the Willkes one gets the sense of second-trimester fetuses killed for sport. A blurry photo of 18- to 24-week-old “dead babies” facedown in a trash can, like so many dolls thrown by an impetuous child, is captioned “one morning’s work at a Canadian teaching hospital.” The image was later mailed by postcard to state legislators. The back read, “Dear Elected Official. Please tell me where you stand on the issue of abortion.” 

This was, to say the least, stirring stuff. In the two months that Life or Death was widely distributed, support for a Michigan law that would have legalized abortion through the fifth month fell decisively, by nearly twenty percentage points. The Maryland state legislature was debating its own liberalization law when members were shown an image from the Handbook of a fetus at 24 weeks being held upside down to die from exposure after abortion by hysterotomy. Some of the legislators, according to The Washington Post, “shield[ed] their eyes.” (Hysterotomy abortion, in which the fetus is removed via an invasive abdominal incision akin to a cesarean section, was rare in the ’70s and now, according to a 2012 report by the World Health Organization, “has no role in contemporary abortion practice.”) The Maryland bill’s unexpected defeat solidified the anti-abortion movement’s strategy, and some activists began to run for office. If they got enough support to qualify for campaign matching funds, they could air gruesome ads on T.V. at half the cost.

Many leading figures of the anti-abortion movement recall their conversion by image. As governor of California, Ronald Reagan had signed into law a bill that legalized abortion in certain cases through nineteen weeks. Then he watched a televised debate in which Mildred Jefferson, the first black woman to graduate from Harvard Medical School, used graphic slides to describe “the mush of the developing baby.” He was moved to write her a letter: “You made it irrefutably clear that an abortion is the taking of human life. I’m grateful to you.” Troy Newman, who went on to lead the clinic-picketing group Operation Rescue, was radicalized by a picture of an aborted fetus much like the ones that he would later plaster on his “truth trucks.” Bernard Nathanson, the one-time cofounder of the largest abortion rights advocacy group in the country and an OB-GYN who claimed to have performed 5,000 abortions, defected after watching the procedure in real time over ultrasound. “For the first time,” he wrote, “we could really see the human fetus, measure it, observe it, watch it, and indeed bond with it and love it.”

In 1985, Nathanson made his own anti-abortion documentary. The Silent Scream is most famous for a scene in which he takes us through an ultrasound of an abortion. As the vacuum approaches, the twelve-week-old fetus appears to buck in pain and fear — at one point, Nathanson claims, silently screaming. A group of doctors responded that a fetus of that gestational age does not have a cerebral cortex and therefore cannot feel pain; Nathanson had created the effect of anguish by speeding up the ultrasound as the instrument was inserted. In the film, Nathanson assures us that while it had once been possible for “a doctor” to ignore fetal life, the dazzling advances in imaging would make even “a feminist and a strong pro-abortionist” never again “discuss the subject.” Reagan, now president, agreed. “If every member of Congress could see that film,” he said, “they would move quickly to end the tragedy of abortion.”

I watched The Silent Scream quite calmly, over lunch. But the trash can, the hysterotomy, the blackened late-term intact fetuses — these got to me. Fetal photography is correct in its most basic claim: that more developed fetuses look a lot like babies. The abortion rights movement has never quite known how to respond. Calling the fetus “a clump of cells” is in many ways accurate — 80 percent of abortions take place within nine weeks, when the embryo is slightly more than a centimeter long and bloblike in appearance — but historically has been unconvincing when placed next to the image of a fat-cheeked fetus sucking its thumb. “Bodily autonomy,” “equality,” “choice”: these terms are offensive or at the least unintelligible to those who strongly or somewhat agree that abortion is “the same as murdering a child” — as of May of this year, some 39 percent of American women.

There is an understandable temptation on the left to dismiss this group, to rage against and ultimately to ignore anyone who cannot tell the difference between a thinking, feeling existence and a contingent, parasitic one. “The differences in opinion that those who support abortion rigths have been chastised into respecting on behalf of ‘coalition building’ are wide and ludicrous,” writes Lauren Oyler in the London Review of Books, “and I regret even pretending to accept them.” We should not, she argues, have indulged speculations about fetal life, or persisted in treating abortion as distasteful. We should not have relied on abortion stories complicit with notions of compulsory motherhood and sexual virtue. Instead: “We should have said that the clump of cells on which you’ve pinned your hopes and fears is not a baby.”

In a world without fetal photography, this might have worked. But today the American public is more deadlocked on the question of fetal life than it is on the question of legal abortion. Over 80 percent of Americans think the fetus “becomes a person” sometime before birth; only thirteen percent think abortion should always be illegal. Fifty years of anti-abortion propaganda have, with great success, relied on the easy sell of the cute suffering fetus to advance policies and worldviews that are much harder sells. As we stare down a future in which — newly absent a federal right to abortion — access in some states will be decided by popular vote, we need to find an argument that appeals even to those who see in the fetus something like a person. 

 

An objection to take seriously: that this was never about life at all. All the “sanctity of life” stuff, the argument goes, is just window dressing, helpful propaganda in service of what the right really wants — theocracy, control of female sexuality, and the subordination of women. Why else would public support for legal abortion be so much higher in cases of rape or incest? (A difficult position to take if one believes that abortion is murder, but not if one believes that women should be punished for choosing to have sex.) Why would anti-abortion politicians tiptoe around in vitro fertilization, which can lead to destroyed embryos, if the real point were not compulsory motherhood? Why would women who get abortions be portrayed by most of the anti-abortion movement as naive victims of evil men, rather than as adults who choose to kill? Why would today’s “party of life” so consistently advocate for chest-thumping foreign invasions, slashed welfare spending, gutted air-quality regulations, privatized healthcare, capital punishment, a thoughts-and-prayers approach to mass murder, gun-happy public servants, and unrestrained Covid? 

Abortion has always been a matter of sex, in both senses of the word. Only an opinion as smirking and dishonest as that by the majority in Dobbs v. Jackson could continue to hold that the regulation of abortion is not sex-based. But the politics of the anti-abortion movement were once more consistent about life. In his astonishing Defenders of the Unborn: The Pro-Life Movement before Roe v. Wade (2015), Daniel K. Williams describes a movement concerned with poverty, war, and the environment. Opposition to abortion was often united with support for the New Deal and civil rights. In the wake of Nazism, activists worried about the devaluation of life and the use of abortion to further eugenics. (Abortion advocates’ habit, at the time, of describing babies with deformities as “monsters” was not reassuring.) Black Americans were the group most likely to oppose abortion; the forced sterilization of black women was ongoing. 

These postwar activists were disproportionately Catholics and women. Many of them believed, more or less overtly, in compulsory motherhood — Williams’s euphemism is “a feminism of difference” — and opposed contraception on the principle that sex should have consequences. But they kept a narrow focus on abortion. The higher-ups at the National Right to Life Committee, then as now the largest anti-abortion organziation in the country, thought that a stance against contraception would discredit a movement already struggling against anti-Catholic bias. Promotional literature mostly heeded the strategic concession and played down issues of religion and sexual morality. In Life or Death, the Willkes explain that abortion “is not just a Catholic, Protestant, or Jewish issue. It is a civil rights question, a human rights question.” 

Then came 1973, a decision in Roe v. Wade that shocked nearly everybody, and a subsequent political sorting. Before Roe, abortion views did not divide along partisan lines; neither party had ever mentioned abortion in its national platform. By 1976, the Republicans had added a plank in support of a fetal personhood constitutional amendment, and the Democrats one in opposition. Single-issue voters for and against legal abortion — in 1970, respectively fifteen and twelve percent of Americans — rearranged themselves accordingly. This rearrangement overlapped with another — the fleeing of segregationists from the Democratic Party after the 1964 Civil Rights Act — as well as with anti-Vietnam War activism and Women’s Liberation. In the cultural churn, Evangelicals enthusiastically joined what had been a primarily Catholic cause, and the movement began to speak less about human rights and more about traditional values. 

That shift is evident in Whatever Happened to the Human Race? (1979), a four-hour documentary created by Frank Schaeffer and narrated by both his father, the Evangelical theologian Francis Schaeffer, and the doctor C. Everett Koop, who became the surgeon general under Reagan. Human Race does not abandon the image of the fetus, by now established as the movement’s rhetorical jewel. It compares premature babies to fetuses aborted at the same gestational age. There is a horrifying story of a 24-week-old fetus left to asphyxiate while nurses ignored it. The word “baby” is used to describe even the youngest embryos, which are represented on screen by dolls and frolicking newborns of many races. A singer pretending to be a fetus begs “Mama” not to kill him. There is a moving section in which people born with various disabilities tell us why others like them should not be aborted. “Abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia,” the unholy trinity, is repeated like an incantation. (Neil Gorsuch’s 2004 doctoral thesis on assisted suicide, which argued that “the intentional taking of human life by private persons is always wrong,” was a dog whistle to the future lobbyists and senators seeking to be sure of his views on abortion.) 

Where once the anti-abortion movement had obscured its religious foundations, now the Evangelical Schaeffer blames the “culture of death” on the loss of “Judeo-Christian values.” (Jews disproportionately support abortion rights.) Only if we uphold our God-given values, he tells us, will life remain precious, valuable, and protected. The alternative — here we see an ominous shot of the Supreme Court’s facade — is “humanistic philosophers” and their “arbitrary sociological law,” an abstraction that might as easily refer to busing or school prayer. We see baby dolls floating in the Dead Sea, where “the city of Sodom stood.” Two children play house: the little girl rubs lipstick onto her cheeks as blush, and draws a mustache on the little boy. Abortion, we realize, is coming not only for our babies, but for our gender roles too. Mildred Jefferson, introduced as “articulate,” appears as a talking head. “The woman who willingly demeans the nurturing instinct and tries instead to deny or to cancel or destroy her own unique biological capability creates a new model of female being,” she says, “one who isn’t changed into a man, somehow never quite grows into a woman, and becomes, in a metaphysical sense, a little bit less than human.” This less-than-human “new model of female being” is, of course, the feminist. (Jefferson, incidentally, herself chose not to have children.)

Concern for the fetus was less window dressing than gateway drug. A candid quote from a 1970s Catholic fundraiser for the New Right walks us through the progression:

The abortion issue is the door through which many people come into conservative politics, but they don’t stop there…. We lead them to a concern about sexual ethics and standards among young people. This leads to opposition to secular humanism…. [W]e point out that secular humanism is identified as both the godfather and the royal road to socialism and communism — which points the way to minimally regulated free enterprise at home and to aggressive foreign and military policy to counter the Communist threat…

Many prominent early anti-abortion activists followed this path. Richard John Neuhaus, an opponent of the Vietnam War, came out in favor of the invasion of Iraq. Marjory Mecklenburg, who had once advocated for government support for pregnant women, took a job with the Reagan administration. Paul Marx, who had been a liberal Democrat, began to rail against the “homosexual agenda.” Both Marx and Mecklenburg flip-flopped on their previously permissive contraception stance. The anti-feminist tenor of the movement became more overt. The infamous clinic protester Randall Terry, who said that he “sobbed convulsively” while watching Schaeffer’s films, held forth on his radio show about “righteous testosterone” and “pathetic males.” Flip Benham, the founder of the Operation Rescue spin-off Operation Save America, let slip that it might be okay to abort a gay child. Jack Willke claimed in 1999 that rape could not lead to pregnancy, an opinion he never renounced.If I know where you stand on abortion,” said Benham, “I know where you stand on everything else.” 

 

The culture war’s success in creating what is sometimes called “the two Americas” is on full display in the 2019 anti-abortion feature film Unplanned. I had reacted to the Handbook with curiosity and doubt, to Human Race with curiosity and irritation. Unplanned I found baffling and parodic. There was, between me and its directors, very little shared sense of reality. Aesthetic standards had split alongside moral ones; the would-be tragedy struck me as an absurdist comedy. 

Unplanned is a fictionalization of the life of Abby Johnson, a one-time director of an East Texas Planned Parenthood clinic who is now a mainstay of the pro-life speaking circuit. Its main argument is that Planned Parenthood is a money-crazed abortion mill that tricks, bullies, and even drugs virtuous women in its pursuit of profit. Abortion is portrayed as more painful than giving birth and as a source of intense, consuming, lifelong regret. The movie concedes that clinic protestors are sometimes, regrettably, “bad” (Operation Rescue types yelling about keeping your legs closed and waving pictures of dead fetuses), but insists that they are almost always “good” (endlessly forgiving and chirpy Christians who let you take your time coming over to the side of righteousness). Unplanned has found success on the Christian film circuit. 

We open on a happy, if rushed, family breakfast with Abby, her husband Doug, and their child. The kid whines that she won’t eat her toast because it was cut into squares rather than triangles. Abby, who is played by Ashley Bratcher, cuts each square diagonally: crisis averted. “And that’s why you’re the mommy,” Doug says, his point presumably being that only women know that squares are made up of two triangles. Abby leaves for work, femininely foregoing breakfast. Along her drive, we see open country, an oil derrick, loving white heterosexuals nuzzling each other on picnic blankets. It’s Saturday, “Mommy’s busiest day.” What is she busy with? Abortions. Having somehow avoided encountering an actual abortion procedure in her eight years at a clinic that, we are given to understand, does little else, today is the day Abby will finally see one.

The real Abby Johnson’s story, told in countless interviews and reproduced in Unplanned, is that she was called in to assist with the ultrasound-guided abortion of a thirteen-week-old fetus. She says that the fetus’s reaction to the vacuum probe — what the movie calls “twisting and fighting for its life” — provoked in her a crisis of conscience. This is almost certainly a lie. A Texas Monthly investigation found that no abortions of that type or gestational age were performed by Johnson’s Planned Parenthood on the date she gives — one that she is unlikely to have mixed up, because her real-life clinic performed abortions only two days that month. The day after Johnson’s alleged conversion, she gave an interview to a feminist radio show in which she seemed enthusiastic about her work and contemptuous of the clinic’s protesters. Moreover, she had recently been reprimanded by her boss for inappropriate gossip and had confessed to coworkers that she was scared she would be fired. She told a friend that she was thinking of declaring bankruptcy. In a Facebook post announcing her resignation, she mentioned only her sense of being overworked and underappreciated.

The possibility that Johnson was aggrieved or money-troubled rather than morally conflicted is interesting not because her sincerity matters in the long run — it doesn’t — but as an example of how the relationship between the anti-abortion movement and fetal imagery is changing. Unplanned is critical of what it would deem “aggressive” use of fetus pictures: women at the abortion clinic are, remember, already victims, and need not be further traumatized by pictures of the dead babies they will come to mourn anyway. But the story of conversion by image — the movie’s tagline is “What She Saw Changed Everything” — is still so necessary to the movement’s self-conception that Johnson, before she could defect, had to provide one. That she happened to see the light in almost exactly the same way as did Bernard Nathanson is convenient: it allows Unplanned to update the famous and misleading scene in The Silent Scream, this time with improved resolution and special effects. 

Johnson, for her part, writes off Texas Monthly as biased liberal media. In the new world of dual realities, it is important to Unplanned — “the movie Hollywood couldn’t stop,” per multiple reviews — that it be perceived as speaking truth to power. The script includes such remarkable non sequiturs as (from Abby’s boss at the clinic): “We are a billion-dollar corporation, with lawyers and lobbyists and media experts on staff. Have you ever seen the names of our donors? Soros, Gates, Buffett.” Bratcher has said that she will be blacklisted for her starring role, and, to be fair, she probably will be. The directors have claimed that the R rating given by the Motion Picture Association was politically motivated and meant to scare away Christian viewers. In an open letter, Mike Huckabee and Glenn Beck, among others, urged those who might find the rating prohibitive nevertheless to show up: “We believe this film has the potential to be [to abortion] what Uncle Tom’s Cabin was to slavery.”

The comparison between slavery and abortion is a common one. “Abolitionists,” in the parlance of the movement, refers to those who support laws that criminalize abortion as murder, which, in certain states, would make someone who gets one eligible for the death penalty. The abolitionists’ willingness to say the quiet part out loud is an embarrassment to many mainstream Republicans, who denounced Donald Trump when he followed the idea of illegal abortion to its logical conclusion and said that women who get abortions should be punished. Unplanned’s hedge on criminalization — that abortion is murder but that women who have them are not murderers — is the more typical party line. This stance is of course incompatible with law: not even American courts are so paternalistic. Between 2006 and 2020, the National Advocates for Pregnant Women documented some 1,331 instances of women prosecuted for harming their fetuses. Post-Dobbs, these numbers will only grow. In August, a 41-year-old Nebraska mother and her seventeen-year-old daughter pled not guilty to felony charges after the mother allegedly helped her daughter obtain an abortion pill. A 23-year-old Alabama woman who allegedly smoked weed the same day she found out she was pregnant spent this summer in jail, some of it sleeping on the floor of an overcrowded cell. 

Nevertheless, Unplanned conceives of the anti-abortion movement as pro-woman, a line that is easier to swallow if you have a specific kind of woman in mind: one who cares for her many children (Johnson now has eight), honors the beliefs of her mother and father, loves her God, and obeys her husband. “I completely agree with equal rights for women,” says the young, idealistic Abby, before agreeing to volunteer at Planned Parenthood. In 2020, her real-life counterpart tweeted that she would support bringing back a voting system in which each household gets only one vote. “How anti-feminist of me. [Laughing-crying emoji.]” In the case of a disagreement over the recipient of the familial vote, she wrote, “In a Godly household, the husband would have the final say.”

 

Abortion hasn’t really been off the ballot since the ’70s, but after Dobbs, it is back on it with a vengeance. California, Vermont, Kentucky, and Michigan will vote in November on state constitutional amendments to either affirm or reject the right to abortion. In Arizona, Georgia, Kansas, North Carolina, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, state-level races will determine whether millions of people can access legal abortion. 

In the weeks before these midterms, the language we use matters. Research by the activists behind the 2018 popular vote repeal of an Irish constitutional ban on abortion found that the word “choice” was associated both with “negative memories of angry arguments” and with frivolous consumer decisions — for example, whether to get soy or skim milk. They focused instead on “care” and “compassion,” on the question of how you would feel if you or someone close to you needed an abortion. They did not call the fetus a “clump of cells.” Instead, they met the picture of a dead fetus with the picture of a dead woman. Her name was Savita Halappanavar and her face was on posters, murals, and handouts. She had miscarried, been denied the abortion necessary to empty her womb, and died of sepsis. Hers is, of course, an unusually saintly story — she was middle-class, a dentist, and married, and she wanted the baby. But the point of propaganda is to persuade. Rest assured that the other side is not saying, “No, pick a younger and less formed fetus, it’s the more typical example.” 

Polling suggests that most Americans, if and when they are confronted with a loved one who wants or needs an abortion, will sidestep the question of fetal rights. Statistically speaking, a large number of the 44 percent of Americans who believe abortion is murder must overlap with the 88 percent of Americans who say they would emotionally support a close friend or family member who had an abortion. Almost half of those “morally opposed to abortion” say they would still drive a friend to a clinic. Already, the experience of knowing someone who would have benefitted from legal abortion has had a tremendous effect on American law. A few years before Justice Harry Blackmun wrote the majority opinion in Roe, his daughter became unhappily pregnant in college and dropped out. She eventually married, miscarried, and divorced. Barry Goldwater, who procured an illegal abortion for his teenage daughter, never fully endorsed the modern Republican position on abortion, although he was happy to support the Hyde Amendment, which keeps abortion out of reach for the poor.

His hypocrisy is not unique. Catholics are far more likely than the average American to oppose legal abortion; they are also slightly more likely to get one. In the last decade, two Republican congressmen, both members of pro-life caucuses, have been exposed for offering to get their wives or mistresses abortions. (One of them, Scott DesJarlais, of Tennessee, is still in office.) Curtis Boyd, an abortion doctor who had at one point performed one percent of all abortions in the United States, came to recognize the pro-life women who picketed outside his clinic. Sometimes he also saw them inside his clinic, when they came to seek abortions. The phenomenon of avowed pro-lifers themselves getting abortions is common enough that doctors have given it a name: the “me exception.” Easy, when it’s your own case, to see the procedure not as murder but as self-defense.

Self-defense is also the argument advanced by the abortion thriller, a burgeoning genre inaugurated by 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, which won the 2007 Palme d’Or. (Pro-abortion films differ from anti-abortion films in that they have artistic aspirations and nowhere near the political effect.) 4 Months and its progeny — 2020’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always, 2021’s Lingui, 2022’s Happening — are variously successful attempts to apply the logic of the thriller to an abortion, a situation that already has most of the ingredients: a ticking clock, a sexually active woman of childbearing age, and, too often, illegality and mortal fear. Here the suspense stems from the inexorable progress of the pregnancy, and of the threats the characters confront — rape, exposure, jail, death — in order to end it. 

Together, these movies constitute a rebuttal to Unplanned. None of the decisions to end a pregnancy is coerced: on the contrary, the protagonists face escalating obstacles. In 4 Months and Lingui, the hero seeks, respectively, a friend and a daughter’s abortion; the pursuit becomes one of loyalty and even maternal love. Each of the movies omits the scene of conception, partly to suggest that this context is irrelevant and partly to maintain the abortion thriller’s near-total de-eroticization of men. In a world where abortion can result in death or prison time, sex with men is a threat. In Never Rarely, a girl submits to unwanted advances in the hopes of getting money to take the bus home after a friend’s out-of-state abortion. In 4 Months, a doctor demands sex as payment for the abortion; afterwards, we see our hero in the bathroom, clawing at herself to get his semen out. Anti-abortion activists often argue that easy access to contraception and abortion would only aid predatory men seeking to duck their responsibilities. Abortion thrillers respond that, on the contrary, mutually appealing heterosexuality is only possible with legal abortion. 

The “care” argument is effective in response to anti-abortion propaganda because it applies regardless of your view of fetal life. It depends instead on the nearly universal urge to help yourself, a friend, or a loved one, an urge that transcends most people’s concern for the fetus. It reclaims kindness and understanding, values which Unplanned sought to take for itself. And it alludes to the unstated end game of the anti-abortion movement. Another way to ask, “Do you want your friend to have the right to choose?” is, “Do you want her to go to jail? Do you want to go with her? If she takes a pill she ordered in the mail and loses a dangerous amount of blood, do you want to be able to take her to the hospital? If she starts miscarrying when she’s eight months pregnant, do you want the doctors to save her or the fetus?” 

There is a misperception that views on abortion are immutable — a matter of religious conviction or unshakeable worldview. But the history of the abortion fight is riddled with defections. Besides Nathanson and Johnson, the anti-abortion movement welcomed Norma McCorvey, better known as Jane Roe. On the other side, Frank Schaeffer has written several books in which he expresses regret about the role that Human Race played in making abortion an Evangelical issue. The once-prominent clinic-protester Rob Schenck spent time in an Alabama jail for his activism. He came to meet people whom he believed had no way of raising a child or caring for those they already had. Both Schaeffer and Schenck now support legal abortion. 

It is not only the leaders of the movement who change their minds. In the years before Roe, many states debated abortion liberalization laws and both sides campaigned heavily. Between 1969 and 1972, the number of Americans who believed “the decision to have an abortion should be left solely to the woman and her doctor” increased by 24 percentage points. We are in the midst of another crucial campaign. And as good as it feels to not care what the other side thinks of an argument, it doesn’t help anyone who needs an abortion.

S.C. Cornell is a writer based in Mexico City.

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