The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Antiabortion advocate worked for years to overturn Roe, but worries over next steps

Karen Swallow Prior knows about activists’ differences in priorities. With the possibility of Roe’s fall, what does it mean to be for life now?

Karen Swallow Prior at her home in Amherst County, Va. Prior is a longtime antiabortion activist. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
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AMHERST COUNTY, Va. — The moment Karen Swallow Prior had worked and prayed for her entire adult life came at 8:41 p.m. last Monday as she stood on the porch of her Virginia farmhouse.

In the dark her face was lit up by her phone, showing a text message that collapsed the decades: A leaked draft of a Supreme Court opinion said a majority of the justices appeared ready to overturn Roe v. Wade.

Prior was shocked and thrilled. But within minutes the deep divisions and differences in priorities among antiabortion advocates came into view. After being put aside for decades as they worked together to overturn Roe, they had become impossible to ignore. While Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. took pains to say the leaked opinion may not be the final one, experts on abortion in America say even the potential of Roe’s demise is a turning point for the movement. If Roe falls, what does it mean to be for life now?

For Prior, it means much more than overturning Roe. It means more support for child care and pregnant women as well as supporting sex abuse victims, vaccinating as many people as possible against the coronavirus, and helping start and run an inner-city high school in Buffalo. But not all antiabortion activists agree and lately have begun splintering over next steps, such as whether to classify abortion as homicide and restrict contraception, as well as whether issues outside of reproduction even qualify as part of the “pro-life” cause.

Roe v. Wade has been a topic of discussion at most Supreme Court confirmation hearings since the landmark abortion case was decided. (Video: Blair Guild/The Washington Post)

A writer, professor and podcaster well-known among many U.S. evangelicals, Prior that night tweeted her joy over the possible Roe overthrow, along with thoughts she’s had increasingly in recent years, most centrally: Was voting for Donald Trump really worth it? Sure, he promised anti-Roe judges on the high court, and through epic luck and political maneuvering it had all fallen into place. But at what moral cost? Prior hadn’t voted for him.

“It’s not pro-life to incite a riot at our nation’s capital where people are killed,” she said a recent morning in her kitchen while making eggs. And: “I don’t think it’s pro-life to brag about sexually assaulting women and to have affairs with porn stars. I mean, these are all the things that contribute to the culture I’ve been fighting all these years.”

In response to her tweets, hundreds of Prior’s fellow Christian activists, including leaders in her Southern Baptist denomination, trashed her antiabortion cred:

“Jezebel — horribly, horribly wicked woman.”

“Enemies of God.”

“You’re complicit in the deaths of millions.”

By Wednesday, Prior stood on the same porch in tears.

“I felt as a pro-life Christian, we were working together, whatever disagreements, politically or theologically we had, we were working together, we were fighting the culture. And now we are attacking each other. I have reservations about where the culture war mentality took us,” she said.

Behind her, inside her house were books of newspaper clippings and photos of her five arrests at abortion clinics, her run for lieutenant governor of New York as a no-chance third-party candidate on an antiabortion platform. A few miles from where she stood was the crisis pregnancy center whose board she’s sat on, and the Liberty University Pro-Life Club she advises.

In her mind all these years, she had pictured Roe ending, under “a truly conservative president who believed out of conviction that abortion was wrong and that there would be justices who weren’t accused of sexual assault.

“I thought this would come in a more holistically pro-life culture. I’ve not until now put it all together: Is it a feature or a bug? Is it all just grift? I want to believe it’s not, but looking at Trumpism, it’s getting harder and harder to say otherwise.”

Becoming an activist

Prior was raised in small, conservative Baptist churches in Maine and around Buffalo “before the culture wars,” she says. The evangelical church wasn’t yet so political and she remembers having no particular expectation when, as a newlywed in her early 20s in 1987, she heard her pastor was hosting someone from a “crisis pregnancy center.” Those are usually Christian-run centers aimed at preventing pregnant people from aborting. The term was new to her.

“I remember being like: ‘Oh, I wonder what the pastor’s going to say about abortion!’ I was curious,” she said.

An antiabortion film was shown, and Prior later wrote “the conviction that abortion kills a tiny, fully human being seeped into my soul that night like a permanent dye.”

Soon she was getting her PhD in English literature at the University of Buffalo, a city that in the 1980s and 1990s was a hotbed of antiabortion activism, which later included violence. (In 1998, a sniper killed a doctor there who did abortions, shooting him in the head while the doctor was in his kitchen having just returned from synagogue.) Prior was a popular local face of the antiabortion movement who led-post abortion Bible study groups while also advocating against the death penalty and in favor of condoms, socialized health care and equality for women in the workplace. Back then, she says, as she protested outside clinics with other Christians holding signs against war and euthanasia, she couldn’t have imagined how laser-focused on Roe their movement would become.

Despite Prior’s memories of a bigger pro-life tent, historians of abortion in America say religious and social conservatives who opposed abortion, birth control and gay rights coalesced together around reversing Roe by the time Prior got involved. Politicians, donors and advocates also recognized the ruling as something everyone in the pro-life movement could agree on, and as a way for them to focus power.

“The extent to which Roe sucked up all the oxygen in the room, that’s the whole story more or less,” said Kevin Wallsten, a California State University at Long Beach political scientist who researches reproductive issues.

But the tone of abortion debate, they agree, changed over time. In the ’90s, Prior says she watched as activists on both sides became more angry and threatening. She saw women frightened by antiabortion signs. At one point, she wrote in a 2016 reflection, “I realized it had been two years since I had witnessed a woman changing her mind at a clinic.”

In the late 1990s, Prior took a job at Liberty in Lynchburg, where cultural Christianity and GOP politics dominated. Over the next two decades, she became a prominent faculty member who wrote books about how to read classic English literature and how to engage with popular culture through a Christian lens. Fueled in part by her experience as a rare Christian conservative and abortion opponent in the Northeast, Prior believed in open and respectful debate, even on causes with which she disagrees, such as abortion access and same-sex marriage. But around her, the country was becoming more polarized.

Liberty became a breeding ground for young Republicans who could go to D.C. and other power centers to change laws and culture. The pro-life movement focus on abortion and Roe grew so narrow that some protesters who also wanted to emphasize saving lives of death penalty prisoners or migrants on the border, for example, said they were hassled at its signature U.S. event, the March for Life.

Division become personal

In 2015, divisions among antiabortion believers got personal for Prior. Long known as a trusted, beloved ear to some LGBT students at Liberty, she appeared at a 2015 groundbreaking film festival looking at the experience of queer evangelicals. Photos of her smiling and posing with openly gay Christians at an affirming event, even though she was there to share her view opposing same-gender marriage, opened a flood of critical pieces about her from fellow conservative Christians.

For attending the event and for saying abortion and human sexuality are “complex” topics and that she sees “common ground” with advocates for abortion and same-sex marriage, Prior was called sinful, bizarre and an example of “shocking liberalism.” Critics demanded she be not only removed as a fellow from a Southern Baptist think tank but that the think tank’s leadership be overhauled. Two task forces were created within the Southern Baptist Convention to study think tank leader Russell Moore. Prior served another four years before leaving over disagreements about how Christians should engage with opponents. Moore stayed until 2021 before splitting from the denomination last year.

Then came the election of Trump, accusations of sexual assault and his “very fine people on both sides” comments after the deadly White supremacist march in Charlottesville. When Prior arrived on the National Mall in January 2020 to see Trump address the March for Life, the first president to do so live, she looked out over the sea of MAGA hats and felt deflated.

She’d chaperoned a big group of Liberty students by bus to the march. The group from Lynchburg was there with Charlie Kirk, a young right-wing leader who at the time had a think tank at Liberty. Kirk and other leaders of his group had recently been shown making White power signs and comments that appeared to praise Adolf Hitler.

Then, as Trump addressed the crowd, Prior was overwhelmed.

“It was like some O. Henry short story: We got what we wanted, a quote-unquote pro-life president and this was not what I wanted,” she recalled earlier this year. “I thought: I’m not willing to pay this price. This is not what I had imagined a pro-life president being. I thought politics was the way to change abortion. I had this moment of realization: We got what we asked for, and I want to take it back.”

Later that year hundreds of Liberty students protested Kirk’s presence on campus and his contract there wasn’t renewed. Soon after, Prior left Liberty and began teaching in fall 2020 at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Tensions with fellow conservative Christians, however, only intensified with the presidential election, the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic and the deadly siege of the U.S. Capitol in January 2021. Some savaged her on social media for comparing abortion deaths to covid deaths, and questioning where her “pro-life” compatriots were as hundreds of thousands — especially the elderly — died of the virus.

She watched as fellow abortion-opponents chanted “my body my choice” to coronavirus protections and vaccines. It felt surreal.

“The way the Church is treating covid is not pro-life,” she remembers feeling. “Everything has fractured for me.”

What does it mean to be for life?

In March, Prior was asked to participate in a series of evangelical-run collegial debates meant to hash out Christian views on topics including gun control and addressing racial injustice. In an auditorium at the Museum of the Bible in D.C., Prior took on the question: “Should the pro-life movement be holistically, or narrowly focused?”

Her all-black outfit, including high black boots, and blonde bob cut stood out against the set stage’s dark backdrop.

“Failure to apply the principle of protecting human life clearly and consistently undermines the principal opposition to abortion and a pro-life ethic as a whole,” she said.

Scott Klusendorf, president of a group that trains abortion opponents to persuade others of their cause, argued abortion is a unique moral crisis.

The antiabortion movement has limited resources, he argued, and “should resist and must resist any attempt by those who say they’re ‘whole life’ in order to rewrite the operational objectives of the pro-life movement. It unfairly puts demands on battle-weary pro-life groups.”

Prior responded, “the criticism we get isn’t about how we spend our time and money, she said, but how we act and what we say. ... I think it’s more our posture, our attitude, our rhetoric towards other issues that involves not just quality of life but literal lives, whether it’s the lives of refugees, Black lives or anyone who is oppressed. That is the heart of it.”

The pair was later asked about how abortion opponents should look at voting, say between a candidate who says he’ll promote laws limiting abortion, like Trump, versus someone like Joe Biden, who focuses on supporting families and reproductive choice by widening the public social safety net.

Christians have to apply their faith to all political issues, Klusendorf said. However, “our responsibility as Christians is to vote to limit the evil and promote the good insofar as possible given current political realities. ... Politics is always the art of the possible.”

Prior realized that she no longer put so much faith in politics. To antiabortion activists, politics “has become an idol and we are reaping the consequences for that,” she said.

The civility of that evening contrasted with the roller-coaster night, two months later, when the draft court opinion surfaced.

Prior, some of whose fans refer to her as the “Notorious KSP,” can be tough and self-assured. Her husband Roy, a guitar player and teacher, says she “knows how to handle herself.” But her hurt when her commitment to orthodoxy isn’t affirmed, is palpable.

“What can you do when people are lying about you?” her tear-filled eyes flashed, a rare hint of anger.

‘Pro-life should encompass so much more’

Several nights after the court document leak, Prior sat around a dinner table in the twilight with a trio of old friends from Liberty. One voted for Trump once, one twice, and two neither election. Three are White, one is Black. Two never married; three of the four don’t have children. All oppose abortion.

They joked about contradictions in their conservative Christian world, while acknowledging through what they say and what they hold back, their very real differences.

“I’ll get martyred for Christ but I won’t get a [covid] shot!” said Prior when someone brings up the overseas missionary work many in the Liberty community do.

Over salads and Diet Dr Peppers, the friends alternately cracked each other up and talked frankly about Roe, what the draft could mean for poor women, and how there needs to be more assistance for disadvantaged women and families.

“People just don’t care enough,” said Carolyn Towles.

“A lot of talk and no action. And that’s been the problem for centuries. About many issues in the Church,” Shelah Simpson said.

The women laughed hard over stories about when they were young and dating. Abortion either wasn’t talked about then or seemed distantly like an option. It wasn’t the explosion it later became in their conservative Christian world.

“It’s this little myopic view of pro-life,” Simpson said. “‘Antiabortion’ is one thing but ‘pro-life’ should encompass so much more.”

Prior mentioned the case of Terri Schiavo, a Florida woman in a vegetative state whose family fought over whether to allow her to die. “All my friends went down there to protest. These were the pro-life people I knew. It was like all these issues. I can’t even imagine that happening now.”

Soon all the peach cobbler was gone. The sun was down. Prior was exhausted. She said her goodbyes and headed into the dark for home.

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