A new series of films and documentaries highlight the remarkable similarities in the dynamics at work in the conversion of abortion practitioners to the pro-life cause.
Abby Johnson (Unplanned) and Dr. Bernard Nathanson (Roe v. Wade), the principal characters in those movies, as well as Norma McCorvey, the “Jane Roe” of Roe v. Wade, experienced this conversion, and I worked with all three of them personally on their journeys, as well as with many others over the years.
A primary dynamic in all these journeys is that when we see what abortion is, we are more inclined to reject it. Where abortion continues to receive support, it does so in so far as it remains hidden.
The tagline for Unplanned says, “What she saw changed everything.” And the same can be said for Dr. Nathanson and for Norma McCorvey.
“For all the millions spent on public relations, the abortion movement has yet to invent rhetoric powerful enough to blind abortion clinic workers from the truth,” McCorvey wrote. “You see the body parts, you hear the women’s cries, and you can’t keep lying to yourself.”
Yet another dynamic worth noting in these conversions is an increasingly clear dissonance between what they thought about their mission and what they saw in both the pro-abortion and pro-life movements, and specifically in the activists on both sides with whom they rubbed shoulders.
When Abby was a volunteer escort-in-training at the clinic she eventually ran, she was being trained on how to keep the clients, who were just arriving for their scheduled abortions, away from the pro-life sidewalk counselors who were trying to dissuade them from going into the clinic.
Abby noticed her trainer take a client away from the pro-life counselors after that client had accepted the literature the pro-life counselors had given her.
“She didn’t look like she felt harassed to me,” Abby wrote. “Clearly, she’d chosen to talk to the pro-lifer… I felt confused. That client had looked truly interested in the information from the pro-lifer. If we are pro-choice, I thought, then we believe in women making their own choices, right?”
The dissonance began. And it led to a curiosity about the pro-life activists.
“Who are these people?,” Abby asked about the pro-lifers. “Why are they here so early on a Tuesday morning, and what do they think they are going to accomplish?”
Dr. Bernard Nathanson wrote about a similar dynamic in his journey. Seeing the pro-life people decades earlier in the same setting outside an abortion clinic, he wrote, “I wondered: how can these people give of themselves for a constituency that is (and always will be) mute, invisible, and unable to thank them? … I began seriously to question what indescribable Force generated them to this activity.”
He, like Abby, was intrigued. He was beginning to process the evidence that maybe the pro-life people weren’t the uncaring monsters that the pro-abortion movement painted them to be.
Dr. Nathanson explained later that the love with which pro-life people treated him was what broke the shell of his atheism.
Norma McCorvey, as she explains in her book Won by Love, experienced the surprising love of the pro-life people — even of those who protested her — in a similar way. Rev. Flip Benham who, like Norma, has been a great friend and colleague of mine in this movement, headed up Operation Rescue and moved into the office right next to “A Choice for Women,” the Dallas abortion mill where Norma was working.
He protested there as he had protested at events in the past where Norma appeared when she was representing the pro-abortion side.
But he also approached her personally, one-on-one, and even apologized one day for some harsh words he had publicly directed at her on a previous occasion.
That got her attention. And he began telling her of his own shortcomings.
Norma wrote that she began asking herself, “Why is this man being so nice to me and telling me his innermost secrets?” The kindness and respect that Flip and the rest of the Operation Rescue team showed her helped her to understand what we mean by the sanctity of every human life.
Flip eventually had the joy of baptizing Norma in 1995, and I had the joy of receiving her into the Catholic Church three years later.
The journeys of these three individuals, recounted in these three books and now on film as well, give us a simple lesson: When we show abortion supporters who we really are, as individuals and as a movement, it is attractive. It breaks the negative stereotypes, and it conveys that we who reject abortion do not reject those who support abortion.
They are not the enemy; they are captive to the enemy.
And we want to free them.
Father Frank Pavone is founder and national director of Priests for Life.