An Important Story Poorly Told
Though very well-researched, the latest pro-life film falls short on production.
As America inches closer to another rehearing of Roe v. Wade, there has been a recent surge in films lionizing abortion activists and feminists while taking aim at major figures in the pro-life movement. AKA Jane Roeclaimed that the pro-life movement had exploited Norma “Jane Roe” McCorvey. The mini-series Mrs. America smeared Phyllis Schlafly and other pro-lifers while glorifying her feminist opponents; The Glorias, a hagiography of Gloria Steinem released only months later, drove home the point. With Hollywood’s revisionist history raking in accolades and entering public consciousness, it is past time that someone set the record straight.
A film that premiered at CPAC this year attempts to do just that. Roe v. Wade was co-directed by Cathy Allyn and businessman Nick Loeb, who also stars in the leading role as Dr. Bernard Nathanson, NARAL founder and abortionist turned pro-life advocate. The movie purports to tell the inside story of how America’s most polarizing Supreme Court ruling came about.
For Loeb, the abortion issue is a deeply personal one. Loeb has been in the news again this month as an L.A. court ruled against him in a custody battle over two embryos created in 2013 through IVF with his ex-fiancée, Modern Family star Sofia Vergara. In addition to ongoing concern for those embryos, which Loeb says Vergara is “trying to kill,” two girls Loeb dated in his twenties had abortions. “As I grew older, I would have dreams that would haunt me, of my child at the age it would be now,” Loeb told me. “That happened every year.”
John Schneider (best known for his role as Bo Duke), who plays Justice Byron White in the movie, also had a personal connection to abortion. “When Dukes of Hazzard started, I was 19 years old,” Schneider told me. “I was told that a girl I had seen was needing money for an abortion. To this day I don’t know if it was true, but I did pay for it. I did write a check back in 1981. I’m bringing that up in case someone knows that and I’m unaware of it.”
I was looking forward to Roe v. Wade, especially with all of the pro-choice propaganda Hollywood has been pumping out lately. Unfortunately, the film will likely be ineffective for nearly anyone who isn’t determined to enjoy it ahead of time. But let me begin with what was done well. Roe v. Wade is a very well-researched docudrama. Many of the mainstream reviews are claiming that the film is filled with falsehoods. In fact, the hardest-to-believe snippets are all true.
Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger did speak at a Ku Klux Klan rally. Chief Justice Warren Burger did change his mind on Roe, voting in private conference to uphold abortion laws before switching his vote later on. Justice William Douglas did threaten to go public with private deliberations, because he suspected that Burger wanted the case reheard so that Nixon could fill two Court vacancies and Roe would fail.
It is also true that several justices had personal connections to the abortion industry. Justice Harry Blackmun’s daughter Sally, who later served on the board of Planned Parenthood of Greater Orlando, urged her father to support Roe; Blackmun’s wife purportedly pushed him to vote in favor of abortion as well. Sarah Weddington, one of the lawyers representing Norma McCorvey, wrote in A Question of Choice that they were encouraged to hear that Justice Potter Stewart’s wife was a Planned Parenthood volunteer. The pro-choice side clearly saw these associations as an advantage.
The bizarre Clergy Consultation Service—a network of over 1,400 clergy and rabbis in forty states which referred women to illegal abortionists—was a real organization founded in New York City in 1967 and took donations from the Playboy Foundation (Hugh Hefner was a significant supporter of abortion legalization). The meeting between NARAL founders Bernard Nathanson, Larry Lader, and feminist leader Betty Friedan did actually take place. And as Sue Ellin Browder lays out in her riveting 2015 memoir Subverted: How I Helped the Sexual Revolution Hijack the Women’s Movement, a handful of men persuaded the feminist movement to back abortion as the key to women’s liberation—while they made a killing.
If the acting in Roe v. Wade were more believable, perhaps the true stories would be, too. Unfortunately, Lucy Davenport is a cartoonish, wild-eyed Betty Friedan (contrasted with Tracey Ullman’s on the nose resemblance in Mrs. America). Summer Joy Campbell doesn’t work as Norma McCorvey. And most significantly, Nick Loeb is an utterly unconvincing Bernard Nathanson. Perhaps it is because I’ve seen so much real footage of Nathanson, but his distinctive look, manner of speaking, and everything else about him is totally absent from the film. Nathanson’s personal testimony, which he lays out in his 1996 memoir The Hand of God, is incredibly powerful. The film version of Nathanson’s conversion to the pro-life cause after personally performing over 50,000 abortions—one of them on his own pre-born child—is schlocky and lacks any emotional power.
That is partially due to the fact that this film is a who’s who of Trumpland. Roe v. Wade is packed with cameos that snap you back to the present. Mike Lindell, the My Pillow guy, appears as a news anchor. Roger Stone is a wooden Washington Post reporter. Tomi Lahren—the pro-choice Fox News chick—shows up as Sally Blackmun, who is appropriately a Planned Parenthood volunteer. Even Milo Yiannopoulos, who left the public stage in disgrace several years ago, resurfaces as British abortionist David Sopher, the doctor who invented the Sopher ovum forceps. He’s exactly as bad as you’d imagine he would be. Even if these performances weren’t awful—and they generally are—they are jarring and out of place.
We’ve seen some very good pro-life films in the past few years, most notably Unplanned and Gosnell: The Trial of America’s Biggest Serial Killer. Roe v. Wade doesn’t measure up. The fascinating and thorough research that went into it gets lost in the choppy production; some important historical figures pop up and down so quickly you have to strain to remember who they were or why they were significant. These stories—such as that of Dr. Mildred Jefferson, the pro-life activist and first black woman to graduate from Harvard Medical School—badly need to be told. But while pro-life viewers may appreciate the effort, Roe v. Wade tells them badly.
Jonathon Van Maren is a public speaker, writer, and pro-life activist. His commentary has appeared in National Review, The European Conservative, the National Post, and elsewhere. Jonathon is the author of The Culture War and Seeing Is Believing: Why Our Culture Must Face the Victims of Abortion as well as the co-author with Blaise Alleyne of A Guide to Discussing Assisted Suicide.