Released April 2, Roe. v. Wade (available on demand) depicts the pivotal 1973 Supreme Court case that legalized abortion, leading to a tragic 60 million U.S. abortions to date.
The film follows Bernard Nathanson (played by director Nick Loeb), the abortion doctor and NARAL cofounder whose efforts to legalize abortion culminated in the fateful court decision. Eventually, however, Nathanson became pro-life after seeing ultrasound images during an abortion, and he spent the rest of his life advocating for the unborn. He eventually became a Catholic. The film attempts to spotlight the competing parties and motivations behind the legal battle.
The film’s best scenes feature the Supreme Court justices debating the legal merits and ramifications of their Roe decision—even as they face conflicts of interest, leaks to the media, and political motivations. Jon Voight, playing Chief Justice Burger, adds much-needed gravitas in his scenes with fellow justices.
The film could have portrayed a compelling drama at the intersection of case law, morality, and human rights. However, it tries to do too much: courtroom drama, character study, commentary on media manipulation. As a result, the pacing suffers and the film’s poorly written characters are undeveloped.
Nathanson’s narration is overly dominant and heavy-handed—his overwrought argument with God feels so over the top that his conversion never resonates as genuine. Pro-life law professor Robert Byrn (played by Joey Lawrence) cites platitudes, coming across as preachy despite making the most effective legal case for the unborn.
Though the film is disappointing, the larger issues it raises are real, and it provides an opportunity for pro-life advocates to take stock of the movement as we enter a new political era.
New Challenges for Pro-Lifers
President Biden has made clear that the new administration intends to repeal abortion restrictions.
Andrea Trudden, senior director of communications for Heartbeat International, told me the Biden administration made its pro-abortion priorities clear on Inauguration Day.
“With a penstroke, President Biden signed executive orders that defy pro-life work and advance a pro-abortion agenda,” she said.
Biden quickly reversed the Mexico City Policy, for example, allowing federal funds to finance international abortion groups. He also directed the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to reconsider the 2019 “Protect Life Rule,” which had blocked federal funding for facilities providing or referring for abortion (Planned Parenthood being the largest beneficiary of funds).
Subtle language in the Equality Act—recently passed in the House and awaiting a Senate vote—would likely make it illegal for physicians not to perform abortions. Because the bill limits protections of religious freedom, making conscience-protection claims will also become more difficult for faith-based groups forced to provide or fund abortions.
Xavier Becerra, the recently confirmed HHS secretary, is a radical pro-abortion advocate. As California’s attorney general he prosecuted investigative journalist David Daleiden, who exposed Planned Parenthood’s illegal selling of fetal body parts. Becerra also litigated against the Little Sisters of the Poor, nuns who opposed the mandate to provide abortion coverage under their health-insurance plan. He also tried to force pro-life pregnancy centers to advertise for abortion. As a congressman, he voted against bills that would ban partial-birth abortion and require medical attention for infants who survived abortions.
Becerra used the COVID-19 pandemic as an opportunity to loosen regulations on chemical abortion pills. He joined a legal effort that removed an in-person consultation requirement, allowing women to receive the drugs by mail. The Supreme Court reinstated the requirement this year, but mail-order abortion pills opened a door the abortion industry will insist remain open.
Chemical abortions are climbing in numbers, accounting for nearly 40 percent of all abortions less than nine weeks. But this also highlights one of the most successful attempts to combat abortion. Heartbeat International’s Abortion Pill Rescue Network connects women who regret taking the abortion pill to medical professionals who administer emergency reversal protocols. Heartbeat reports 2,000 babies have been saved through this process.
Another encouraging front in the pro-life movement is on the state level. South Carolina recently joined at least 10 other states that have passed versions of heartbeat bills—laws that would ban nearly all abortions after a heartbeat is detected. Although federal judges have blocked these laws, forcing abortion advocates into the uncomfortable position of trying to explain away the significance of a heartbeat is a victory in the debate about the unborn’s humanity.
Church, Don’t Be Silent
While the legal and political fronts are critical in the pro-life cause, the church is also a vital front in the long cause of changing hearts and minds about abortion.
Students for Life’s research reveals only 41 percent of mainline Protestant pastors discussed abortion in the past year, although nearly half of abortions are obtained by churchgoing women. Abortion is not just an external problem for churches to address.
Abortion is not just an external problem for churches.
Pro-lifers should be encouraged by trends that indicate the next generation leans pro-life. More than 70 percent of young people (ages 18 to 34) support limitations on abortion and 60 percent oppose Roe v. Wade.
Almost all abortions occur in this age range. Churches should keep discipling young people to grasp the theological grounding for the sanctity of life. The fight for unborn rights is a compelling avenue for their energy on justice and rights.
Churches should not rely on films like Roe v. Wade to educate people about abortion. We can hope that more (and better) pro-life films are made that compel young audiences to see the injustice and ugliness of abortion, but we can’t rely only on the media. In our communities and congregations, we must speak up and be involved.
A scene from the film portrays an attorney appealing to the justices for the unborn by asking: “Who will speak for this silent minority?”
Christians must speak for the voiceless. We know, after all, that the pulsing flicker of a heartbeat is a life designed in the image of God.