The pro-life movement has always loved a conversion story. People who reject their former lives working for pro-choice causes are some of the most prominent voices in the movement, and the existence of abortion regret—a woman changing her mind after it’s too late—is a key legislative and rhetorical tactic. So when the real-life “Jane Roe” of Roe v. Wade announced two decades after that landmark Supreme Court case that she had realized abortion ought to be illegal after all, she became an instant star within the pro-life movement.
A bombshell documentary airing Friday night on FX adds a final shocking twist to Norma McCorvey’s ideologically eventful life. In AKA Jane Roe, McCorvey offers what she calls a “deathbed confession”: Actually, she was basically pro-choice all along and only became a pro-life activist for the money. “It was a mutual thing,” she tells director Nick Sweeney. “I took their money, and they took me out in front of the cameras and told me what to say.” Sweeney displays tax documents revealing that McCorvey received at least $450,000 from pro-life groups over the course of her years as an activist, often classified as “benevolent gifts.” “If a young woman wants to have an abortion,” McCorvey says, “that’s no skin off my ass. That’s why they call it choice.”
News of McCorvey’s apparent about-face broke in the Daily Beast earlier this week. Now, pro-life activists are attempting to reconcile McCorvey’s statements on film with the woman who fought alongside them for two decades. (McCorvey died in 2017.) So far, they are standing by their old friend and dismissing the documentary—or at least the initial coverage of it—as misleading or manipulative.
Frank Pavone, the head of Priests for Life and McCorvey’s longtime spiritual mentor, told me he remained close with McCorvey until her death and is confident McCorvey retained her core convictions against abortion. But he also described her as a fiercely independent woman whose views on the issue were always more complicated than media narratives captured. “People look at her story like, ‘First she was pro-choice, then she was pro-life, and at the end maybe she changed back again.’ No, it’s not that simple,” he said. “When she came over to the pro-life movement, it wasn’t all that much of a change. It was a different emphasis. It was a matter of: What side of your ambivalence are you going to emphasize?” Pavone said McCorvey was disillusioned by some of her relationships with other pro-life activists near the end of her life—Pavone said she felt that many people had fallen out of touch with her after she moved into assisted living—and speculates that her provocative quotes in the documentary could have just been a way of venting.
Abby Johnson, a former Planned Parenthood clinic director who is now a prominent anti-abortion activist, told me that McCorvey called her out of the blue just a few days before she died. They had never met. “She wanted to know if I believed that when she died, if she would be held accountable for all the babies who were killed because of her,” Johnson said. “I don’t have any problem believing that in the last year of her life that she tried to convince herself abortion was OK. But I know at the end of her life, she did not believe that.” Johnson said she tried to reassure McCorvey over the phone that legal abortion was “not her burden to carry.”
Johnson described McCorvey as a vulnerable, confused, and complicated woman who in hindsight should not have been thrust into the spotlight so quickly after her conversion. Johnson views McCorvey as having been used by the pro-choice movement in the 1973 suit that made her famous. But “was she [also] used by the pro-life movement? Yeah,” she said. “Not intentionally, not maliciously, but that had to feel like a huge win.”
Ann Scheidler, the vice president of the Pro-Life Action League, first met McCorvey at a pro-life conference in the mid-1990s, soon after her conversion to the cause. Scheidler invited McCorvey to speak at an event in Chicago, and McCorvey later testified in an Illinois court case in which the National Organization for Women accused Scheidler’s husband of racketeering. Her organization paid McCorvey’s travel expenses but did not otherwise compensate her, Scheidler said. They ran into each other occasionally afterward, sometimes grabbing “a couple of drinks at the March for Life.” The McCorvey she knew was fun, unsophisticated, and occasionally outlandish, but a sincere believer in the pro-life cause. “I never thought to question it,” she said. “She definitely agonized over her role in abortion.”
Other anti-abortion activists have expressed similar confidence publicly in the run-up to the documentary’s debut. Twenty-six activists who say they knew McCorvey signed an open letter calling on FX to release unedited footage of Sweeney’s interviews with her. “Most of us have seen caricatures of ourselves in the media made possible by selective editing, outright omissions, and direct falsehoods,” the group wrote. The statement’s signatories include the president of Operation Rescue, Troy Newman; the president Students for Life of America, Kristan Hawkins; and Pavone.
The documentary itself does paint a much more subtle portrait of McCorvey than the headlines about her “deathbed confession” suggest. McCorvey does not seem to have made an ideological U-turn in direct exchange for cash. Rather, it seems that she may never have had terribly firm convictions to begin with and was motivated more by practical and psychological needs than political goals. The payments, for one, are hardly scandalous: Being paid for speaking appearances is standard across the political spectrum, and the mere fact that a spokesperson is being paid doesn’t mean they are not sincere.
McCorvey did not start out as an activist of any kind. She was 21, poor, and pregnant for the third time when she was referred to two Texas lawyers looking for a pregnant plaintiff to challenge the state’s abortion law. The case took three years to reach the Supreme Court. McCorvey never got an abortion, and all three of her children were adopted or raised by family members. McCorvey embraced her legacy as “Jane Roe” and became a prominent pro-choice activist in the late 1980s with the help of Gloria Allred, who obtained public speaking lessons for her and ushered her around to rallies and media appearances. AKA Jane Roe features a clip of Holly Hunter winning an Emmy for portraying a character based on McCorvey in a 1989 TV movie. McCorvey was a paid consultant on the film, though she bristled at the fact that her lawyers were paid almost three times as much as she was.
AKA Jane Roe portrays the mainstream pro-choice movement at large holding McCorvey at arm’s length. McCorvey had testified under oath in the Roe case that she had become pregnant by gang rape, but in 1987, she told a Dallas newspaper columnist she had lied. The admission didn’t imperil the legal ruling, but it made activists wary of relying on McCorvey as a spokesperson. The documentary captures McCorvey milling around at a pro-choice rally in Washington, apparently miffed about not being asked to speak.
Some pro-life activists were apparently less cautious when McCorvey appeared to undergo a sincere and dramatic conversion in the mid-1990s after befriending Flip Benham, the head of the attention-getting anti-abortion group Operation Rescue, and McCorvey quickly started appearing at rallies and conferences for the other side. The price was high: McCorvey was in a long-term romantic relationship with a woman, Connie Gonzalez, which she apparently gave up at the urging of her new, socially conservative friends. (The women continued to live together for another decade, but they both told interviewers that their sexual relationship ended. Gonzalez died in 2015.)
In a deeply reported 2013 profile of McCorvey in Vanity Fair, reporter Joshua Prager portrays McCorvey as an opportunist more than a moralist. In 1988, when McCorvey was still a pro-choice activist, she worked with an advertising executive and others to print 1,000 copies of the Roe decision for her to sign and sell. “I think it’s accurate to say that [we] were manipulating Norma,” the executive told Prager, “and that Norma was manipulating us.” Benham told Prager that he helped McCorvey negotiate an $80,000 deal for her second memoir, Won by Love, published by an evangelical press in 1998. Her previous memoir, I Am Roe, had come out just four years earlier. McCorvey declined to participate in the Vanity Fair profile after demanding, and being refused, a $1,000 fee.
Indeed, McCorvey’s defenders this week have suggested money could have played a role in her final on-camera conversion, too. Pavone told me McCorvey texted him that she had “charged” to appear in the documentary and was excited to “have some bucks at the end.” Screenshots of those texts were published earlier this week by the anti-abortion site LifeNews. McCorvey’s former lawyer Allan Parker issued a statement on Wednesday speculating that producers “paid Norma, befriended her and then betrayed her.” (Parker represented McCorvey from 2000 to 2005 in her unsuccessful legal attempts to have Roe v. Wade overturned.) Sweeney told the Daily Beast that he did not pay McCorvey directly for her participation in the documentary but did pay her to license her personal photographs.
Public opinion polls suggest Americans themselves have conflicted, and sometimes contradictory, attitudes toward abortion. Maybe that makes Norma McCorvey, with her lifetime of messy inconsistencies, a perfect avatar for the abortion debate after all. “All I’m simply doing is watching out for Norma’s salvation and Norma’s ass,” McCorvey says in an undated clip in the documentary. “And it’s just that simple.”
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