On Jan. 22, 1973, nine Supreme Court justices made abortion the law of the land in America. It was the culmination of a cultural struggle years in the making.
Roe v. Wade tells the story of what many consider the most important case in Supreme Court history. It’s a tale told from an insider’s dramatized perspective, that of Dr. Bernard Nathanson, a New York physician at the heart of this complex and multilayered story. Bernie (as his friends call him) narrates each twist and turn in the path toward Roe v. Wade’s legal outcome … and takes us decades further, too, as he realizes with horror the tragic legacy of his life’s work.
The story begins in 1949, after Bernie’s girlfriend confesses that she’s pregnant and wants and abortion. He finds someone willing to perform the procedure. But the blood on her dress when she gets out of the cab afterward tells us it has not gone well. Indeed, she soon dies, resulting in Bernie’s multidecade personal crusade to help desperate women obtain safe and legal abortions. “I became a doctor to make sure no girl ever had to go through that again,” he tells us.
By 1970, Bernie has connected with Larry Lader, whom he labels “the father of the abortion movement,” a man personally mentored by Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger. If Bernie’s motivations seem deeply personal, Lader’s seem darker. He’ll stop at nothing to make abortion on demand the law everywhere—and he’s more than willing to reap any financial benefits of the movement.
Lader and Bernie convince emerging feminist icon Betty Freidan to spearhead the cause. Soon, Lader’s “pro-choice” movement fuses with Freidan’s Equal Rights movement to form a potent force bent on granting women the right to abortion in the name of freedom, privacy and equality.
Lader expertly manipulates the media while Bernie pulls made-up statistics out of thin air to support their cause. But what’s truly needed is someone to serve as a pawn in their legal strategy to take their battle to the Supreme Court. With help of two fledgling lawyers in Dallas—Sarah Weddington and Linda Coffee—they find their mark: Norma McCorvey.
She’s perfect, they say: young, inexperienced, a runaway with a criminal record, an alcoholic, a drug addict, a lesbian and a girl with only a 9th-grade education.
In other words, she’s someone they can easily manipulate to accomplish their bigger goal of making abortion legal.
At the heart of this historical story are two interwoven philosophical questions: When does life begin, and does an unborn fetus deserve constitutional protection? We see both sides of this legal, ethical and theological debate play out here.
On the pro-life side, Robert Byrn is an articulate voice challenging anyone who suggests that life doesn’t begin at conception. He’s joined in the movement by the first black, female graduate of Harvard Medical School, Dr. Mildred Jefferson. Father James T. McHugh, a Catholic, also plays a pivotal role in energizing the emerging pro-life coalition.
On the other side, Bernie seems to be a sincere believer in his desire to help women (not unlike Abby Johnson in the movie Unplanned). At first, he believes he’s helping those who have “nowhere else to turn.” As the story unfolds, however, Bernie begins to have doubts about what he’s doing—doubts that come crashing down on him when ultrasound technology enables him to see clearly what he’s been doing for so many years. (More on that in Spiritual Content.) “It’s a person!” he cries, hands covered with blood mid-procedure, as he falls to the floor in tears.
Years later, he tells a Washington Post reporter that some part of him always knew that he had been embracing a lie, but it took literally seeing an abortion’s horror through the lens of an ultrasound machine to make him see the truth.
The Supreme Court justices themselves aren’t depicted in a flattering light. Chief Justice Warren Berger initially stands against Roe, but later flips to the other side of the argument. In the end, newly named Justice Byron White is the one of only two justices to vote against Roe. And we hear his strong, consistent opposition to abortion most clearly.
Dr. Jefferson’s mother quotes Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as saying, “We cannot win if we are willing to sacrifice the futures of our children for immediate personal comfort or safety.” Other spiritual leaders who are said to be against abortion include Mother Theresa, the Dalai Lama and Mahatma Gandhi.
Early in the film, we watch as a New York state senator gives an impassioned plea for restricting abortion by reading from a work called “Diary of the Unborn.”
Bernie notes early on that he came from a Jewish family, yet he describes himself as an atheist. At a crisis moment, however, as his faith in what he’s doing begins to crack, he goes to a Catholic church and has a yelling match with God, impugning the Almighty’s character. But Bernie eventually regrets what he’s done and realizes the gravity of it, calling out in tears, “God forgive me for what I have done. I’m so sorry, God. What have I done?” In the end, he’s baptized as a Catholic.
Speaking of Catholics, Larry Lader tries to make Catholics his villains in his public relations campaign for abortion. The film, however, depicts Catholics (mostly in New York City) as forming the bulwark of the nascent pro-life movement. Multiple scenes take place within St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and we see artwork featuring Mary holding baby Jesus.
Dr. Jefferson encourages those fighting the legal battle to make their arguments apart from references to God or spiritual convictions, because she believes references to faith will weaken their legal case.
Amid feminist protests we hear the voice of a street preacher quoting Proverbs 14:12: “There is a way that seems right to man. And in the end it leads to death.”
Bernie tells of how he and Lader utilized a national network of rabbis and Protestant clergy across the country whom they worked with to secure abortions in places where the procedure wasn’t legal, receiving a kickback for those referrals.
A Klan meeting of women includes a burning cross. Real archive footage of Norma McCorvey shows her wearing a large cross.
Bernie and his wife kiss twice.
Bernie and Lader vacation together (alone, without their wives) in St. Croix in the Caribbean. We see them ogle the backside of a woman wearing a revealing swimming suit. In another scene, they “hold court” with two adoring young women in bikinis, bragging about their exploits as leaders of the abortion movement. Another female character wears a formfitting shirt.
It’s clear that Bernie and a girlfriend have been having sex. A woman comes to a rabbi in Chicago seeking information on where she can get an abortion. She has a man with her, whom the rabbi assumes is her husband until it becomes clear that he’s an illicit lover.
Norma McCorvey is obviously unmarried and pregnant. The entire story is set against the backdrop of breaking free from old social mores, including “restrictive” sexual attitudes.
We see Bernie’s girlfriend wearing a dress with bloodstains on the front. A doctor performing abortions in a hotel in Chicago has blood on his hands (literally). Police kick in a door and raid the hotel, and they (and we) see multiple buckets of aborted fetuses in a closet.
Bernie verbally walks doctors through a new procedure involving improved suction techniques. He talks through what happens, including the necessity to “reassemble” pieces of the aborted fetus to make sure that they’ve all been removed.
In an utterly heartbreaking scene, Bernie brags to someone about having performed an abortion on his own girlfriend at the time. He says it didn’t bother him, but we see him weeping as he assembles the pieces of his daughter’s little body in a tray.
We repeatedly see women lined up on beds awaiting their abortions, in what almost seems like an assembly line. Bernie seems to move quickly from one woman to another, and he places and moves medical implements between their legs (though nothing explicit is shown). We see jars full of syphoned blood and flesh in hospitals and clinics.
We hear one or two uses each of “h—,” “d–n,” “heck” and two misuses of God’s name. When police break violently into a hotel room where a doctor is performing an abortion, someone seems to voice an unfinished s-word.
As mentioned, Norma McCorvey is described as a drug and alcohol abuser. Various characters drink socially at events and meals throughout the film.
Bernie says of Margaret Sanger: “Margaret opened clinics in poor, black neighborhoods, and called it ‘The Negro Project.’ … Her goal was to reduce the Black population, either through birth control or sterilization. She literally wanted to stop Black people from having babies altogether.”
Another flashback-esque scene purported to have taken place at Silver Lake, New Jersey, in 1926, pictures Sanger speaking to a group of female KKK members. With a cross burning in the background, she says, “The mass of Negroes, particularly in the South, still breed carelessly and disastrously. The result, an increase in Negroes more than among whites, is that portion of the population least intelligent and fit.” (End credits show a book cover from Sanger and quote a portion of it where she talks about speaking to a group of KKK women.)
Supreme Court justices are presented as petty, insecure and jockeying openly for position and influence. They seek to influence each other’s votes, sometimes with those of more seniority threatening more junior memebers. We also learn that two justices had family members that volunteered for Planned Parenthood. One judge’s perspective is shaped by his wife and daughters, who essentially gang up with him at dinner one night and suggest that voting against Roe would be equivalent to voting against women’s equality—and against his only family.
Larry Lader masterminds a public relationships campaign to put abortion in a more positive light. We never really see what drives him, but money would seem to be at the top of the list. He understands that he needs media coverage (we hear that Time magazine ran pro-abortion stories four times a year for years because of him), as well as the role that Hollywood plays in reinforcing the pro-abortion worldview.
How does culture change over time? What influences its currents of conviction to flow this way, or that?
We may think of cultural change as a vague, ephemeral thing that simply happens mysteriously in the swirling ether of society. But what Roe v. Wade reminds us is that such currents of change have a source. They flow from individuals and their commitment to ideas and ideals, for better or for ill.
In particular, the film shows us how two men—one driven by warped idealism, one propelled by murkier motives—radically impacted American culture with their behind-the-scenes advocacy for abortion. Lader and Nathanson understand how the levers of power work; this story shows us how they unabashedly pulled them, over and over again.
The result: a Supreme Court decision that has ultimately led to the deaths of 61 million babies since Jan. 22, 1973, with 40% from Black mothers (according to the film). It’s a staggering, sobering and sorrowful reminder of the stakes involved in this issue. And it’s also a call to action for those who fiercely defend the cause of the preborn.
Roe v. Wade is a difficult movie to watch. It may not be quite as gut wrenching as 2019’s Unplanned. But brief, graphic images of aborted babies here will push this story out of bounds for many sensitive viewers.
For those who can absorb some briefly horrific scenes, however, this is an important film. Like Unplanned, Roe v. Wade takes what can devolve into an abstract debate and makes the stakes shockingly clear. It also reminds us, through one man’s painful journey, that even if you’ve embraced a lie for much of your life, there’s still time to turn around and make a redemptive influence in the lives of others.
Focus on the Family is deeply invested in equipping and encouraging the pro-life movement. To learn more about how you can get involved, we encourage you to check out our See Life 2021 digital event. And for more coverage on Roe v. Wade, check out Focus on the Family’s Daily Citizen coverage here.
After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews as the site’s director. He and his wife, Jennifer, have three children. In their free time, the Holzes enjoy playing games, a variety of musical instruments, swimming and … watching movies.