The pro-life witness of Karen Swallow Prior

By Jonathon Van Maren

On September 9, 2021, the New York Times published an editorial titled “Texas’ Abortion Law Should Force America to Change Its Ways” and the Internet promptly exploded. Penned by Dr. Karen Swallow Prior of the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, the column began: “Abortion is a failure for every woman and her unborn child — a failure of love, justice and mercy. Texas’ new abortion law is far from perfect, but I hope it can move us closer to these ideals.” Prior defended the law, highlighted where she believes pro-lifers can do better, and closed with these powerful words:

As history has shown again and again, we sometimes need the law to teach us to love. Sometimes it takes a law to remind us that fellow human beings are not ours to own, harm, or kill.

Love is a higher law. But it is still a law. And this is where we must begin.

In no time, Prior’s name was climbing up Twitter’s list of trending topics nationwide. Abortion advocates were staggered that Prior’s column had been published; as one commenter noted, it was as if someone had permitted a pro-lifer into their pulpit. American historian Diane Butler Bass highlighted Prior’s past pro-life work and asked: “Where are the @nytimes fact-checkers and background people?????” This was followed by a demand reiterated by scores of others: “The @nytimes owes its readers an apology and a retraction.”

Bass’s thread, as well as many others, did not engage with Prior’s arguments per se—they objected to the fact that the New York Times would publish someone like her. That is, someone who was a member of the pro-life movement; someone who had been arrested in front of abortion clinics (five times); someone who had grappled with the fact that pre-born children are human beings created in God’s image throughout her career. That such a person would be legitimized by the Times is appalling to supporters of legal abortion.

Reading her editorial in the Times, I was reminded of the time Chris Matthews asked a New York Times reporter if she could name a single pro-life colleague, and she could not. (Ross Douthat must have slipped her mind.) It is encouraging that the Times would run a pro-life column on a law that has rendered abortion activists apoplectic and apocalyptic. We can complain about the mainstream media, but we should also give credit where credit is due.

“Many readers of the New York Times, including more progressive Christians, seemed surprised to learn that people who think abortion should not be legal exist,” Prior told me. “Or perhaps they were simply shocked to find such views published in the New York Times. One prominent minister tweeted that people with such views shouldn’t be allowed to publish in the NYT.  Dozens and dozens of people filled my inbox and my Twitter feed with misogynist slurs and vile suggestions—all for the sin of being pro-life in the New York Times.”

What I found particularly interesting about the attacks on Prior by progressive Christians is that she is often considered a member of their ranks by conservative members of the Twitter attack squad. She has been the target of ugly, slanderous attacks from the right-wing side of the spectrum (which I will not link to) by folks who disagree with her approach to racial issues; by those irrationally enraged by her anti-Trump position; and by those who just seem to feel that she has a generally liberal aura about her (she is an English professor, after all.) I don’t always agree with Dr. Prior, but her takes have always made me think twice, and have caused me to moderate or shift my own views many times.

In my collection of pro-life ephemera, I have a large collection of newspaper clippings detailing Prior’s career of pro-life activism (she kindly gifted me a boxful some years ago for my archive), and I have found Operation Rescue press releases with her name on them at Right to Life offices, too. I bring this up because it has long bothered me that the attacks on her are frequently leveled by those who have been involved in the movement for a far shorter time and have sacrificed far less. These attacks are ignorant as well as ungracious.

Whatever else folks might disagree with Prior on, accusations of being insufficiently pro-life simply because her approach might differ or because she has ideological differences with her interlocutors are ridiculous. Her column in the New York Times is only the latest evidence of that, but anyone interested in how she has lived out her convictions can find a wealth of evidence with a quick Google search.

In fact, the publication of such a powerful articulation of the pro-life position in the New York Times is a reminder of why diversity in the pro-life movement is so important. Prior is a respected academic who has been published in The Atlantic, the Washington Post, Vox, and other staunchly liberal publications. That is the sort of résumé that can put you in consideration for a column in the New York Times. Speaking as someone who has written hundreds of pro-life columns for conservative outlets, it is undoubtedly true that a single column like Prior’s on a platform like the New York Times is more valuable, in terms of cultural impact, than all of those columns put together. Abortion advocates understand that, which is why they are so angry that her defence of life was published.

We need voices like Prior’s speaking from platforms like the Times because if we are to change the culture, we must engage those who disagree with us in language they can understand. Speaking only to likeminded people is entrenchment, not engagement.

As the Supreme Court considers the future of Roe v. Wade and increasingly stringent pro-life laws pass across the country, it is essential that a diversity of pro-life voices speak up in their defence. Prior is one such voice; I also very much appreciate the insights of Dr. Charles Camosy, formerly of Democrats for Life, as well as Dr. Daniel K. Williams (author of Defenders of the Unborn: The Pro-Life Movement Before Roe v. Wade and The Politics of the Cross: A Christian Alternative to Partisanship.) The solutions required to address America’s abortion wars are complex and difficult, and they have much wisdom to share.

“For many younger pro-life Christians, the idea of a post-Roe world has been out of reach for so long that they’ve not really had to grapple with what stricter abortion laws would look like and how to get there,” Prior observed. “I think this essay made some who feel pro-life think for the first time about how that philosophy should or should not be reflected in the law. I think we’re going to be having a lot more of these conversations in coming years.”

Prior is precisely right on that score. I, for one, am glad that she is using her voice to defend pre-born children. I wish so many others weren’t using theirs to attack her—on both the Left and the Right.

One thought on “The pro-life witness of Karen Swallow Prior

  1. Navi says:

    When pro-lifers complain about media bias, their problem is that the media is too biased. When pro-choicers complain about media bias, their problem is that the media isn’t biased enough. Their reaction to the 1% of op eds that go against their narrative is instructive.

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