“This is my confession on the deathbed.”
That’s what Norma McCorvey says at the beginning AKA Jane Roe, a new documentary about her life as a plaintiff in the historic Supreme Court case of 1973 Roe v. Wade. When McCorvey, identified in court documents as Jane Roe, became pregnant in 1969, abortion was illegal in her state. She sued the right to terminate her pregnancy, and although the case lasted for years – enough time for her to give birth and put the child up for adoption – she eventually won and established the right to abortion for all Americans.
After Roe v. Wade it was decided, McCorvey became a lawyer for abortion rights. But then, in the 1990s, she changed her mind, collaborated with the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue, and worked on Roe v. Wade overturned. McCorvey, who died in 2017, has become a pivotal figure for anti-abortion lawyers – a conservative film that dramatizes her embrace of the anti-abortion movement is currently in the works as Cassie da Costa comments at the Daily Beast.
But now there is another chapter in McCorvey’s story. In AKA Jane RoeFilmed shortly before her death, she says her transformation into an anti-abortion attorney was an act and paid to serve as a “trophy” for conservative groups. “I took their money and they put me in front of the cameras and told me what to say,” she tells director Nick Sweeney.
McCorvey’s admission in the movie, which premieres on FX on Friday, made headlines across the country and shocked many abortion rights advocates – including former McCorvey attorney Gloria Allred, who appeared in the documentary.
But some say it is not surprising that McCorvey, who changed course several times in her life, would do it again before she died. And while both sides of the abortion debate have sometimes claimed McCorvey as a symbol, the complexity of her life can make her more representative of most Americans’ feelings about abortion than if she stuck to one ideology.
“The fact that she was a complicated person who I think had a complicated attitude to abortion all her life makes her a better symbol of abortion in America, because the views of the Americans themselves are contradictory,” Mary Ziegler , professor of law at Florida State University and the author of Abortion and the Law in America: Roe v. Wade to the PresentVox said.
McCorvey was an advocate for abortion rights. Then she changed her mind very publicly.
Norma McCorvey grew up poor in Louisiana and Texas, with an abusive mother and an absent father. Around the age of 10, she says AKA Jane Roe, she and another girl ran away from home, robbed a gas station and checked into a hotel. A hotel maid caught them kissing, and McCorvey was arrested and eventually sent to a health school.
When she was 15, she was sent to live with a family member who sexually assaulted her. She married at the age of 16, to a husband who also abused her and had a child who was eventually adopted by her mother. She left her husband and had another child, who was also adopted. At the age of 21 she became pregnant for the third time. By then she was living on the street, she says AKA Jane Roe, and addicted to drugs and alcohol.
At the time, abortion was legal in some states, such as New York, but illegal in Texas, where McCorvey lived. She went to an illegal abortion doctor, but was too scared to continue the procedure. “A lot of women couldn’t figure it out,” she says in the movie. “They would bleed to death.”
McCorvey then consulted an adoption attorney, who told her about Sarah Weddington and Linda Coffee, two lawyers seeking to represent a woman seeking an abortion in Texas. They took her case and it went all the way to the Supreme Court.
Essentially at night, Roe v. Wade changed the landscape of abortion in America. Before 1973, people with unwanted pregnancies in states like Texas had few options: travel to a place where abortion was legal, or visit the type of facility that had so scared McCorvey. But after the decision, legal abortion clinics began to open across the country. Meanwhile, Roe became the basis for a number of court rulings restricting how many states could limit abortion, as now recognized as a constitutional right.
But the battle was far from over, as anti-abortion groups emerged or expanded and began to rely on abortion restrictions. On the other hand, abortion providers and advocates campaigned for wide access to the procedure.
McCorvey first joined the last camp. She approached Charlotte Taft, the director of a Dallas clinic, at an event in the 1980s and introduced herself and said, “I’m Jane Roe,” Taft told Vox. She has appeared at local abortion rights events and then at national ones, represented by Allred.
But privately, McCorvey was in conflict over her role in the abortion debate. “Occasionally Norma called me after she drank, and she said things like the playground is empty because of me,” Taft, who also appears in AKA Jane RoeVox said. “She had a lot of ambivalence, even because she was Jane Roe.”
McCorvey was subsequently baptized as a Christian in 1995 and joined the anti-abortion group, Operation Rescue. She also dismissed the case that bore her pseudonym.
“We’ve had two generations of women – well, almost three generations now – women they grew up with Roe vs. Wade,” she said at the time. “They have literally been given the right to slaughter their own children.”
At the time, McCorvey had been in a relationship with a woman, Connie Gonzales, for many years. But after her baptism, she said, “I am not a lesbian. I am now only a child in Christ. “
Many on the anti-abortion side saw her conversion as a huge victory. “The heart of the person who most symbolized abortion in this country has been touched and captured, if you will,” said Bill Price, president of Texans United for Life, told the New York Times in 1995.
And ever since, for abortion opponents, McCorvey has been “a symbol of the idea that abortion has never helped women,” said law professor Ziegler. “If it hadn’t helped McCorvey and McCorvey hadn’t really been for abortion,” asked opponents, “were there really women who benefited from abortion?”
But with AKA Jane Roe, the story of McCorvey’s life has changed again. In the film, McCorvey tells Sweeney that she essentially played a role when she rejected abortion as an activist with Operation Rescue. “I’m a good actress,” she says.
When asked if she was used by the anti-abortion movement, she says, “I think it’s a mutual thing,” noting that she’s been paid. In the film, Rev. Rob Schenck, a former Operation Rescue leader, also says McCorvey was “on the payroll” at various times, and Sweeney reveals documents showing that McCorvey has received over $ 450,000 in gifts from anti-abortion groups. Reverend Flip Benham, who baptized McCorvey and is now the leader of the anti-abortion group Operation Save America, tells Sweeney that McCorvey was not paid.
At the time of her “death-bed confession,” McCorvey also said that people should have the right to abortion.
“If a young woman wants an abortion, fine,” she says. “It’s not skin on my ass. You know, that’s why they call it” choice. “
Her reversal of the deathbed may just be part of a complicated life
The McCorvey revelation, which is nearing the end of her life, is certainly a fire hazard. Like Monica Hesse writes in the Washington Post, when the other documentary participants, including Allred, Schenck and Taft, see the footage, “one by one they all gasp”.
“Every part of me was surprised and shocked” to hear her words, Sweeney told Vox.
But others are not sure whether to keep the confession in mind. For example, Taft doesn’t believe that McCorvey simply became an anti-abortion activist for money. “I don’t think it’s that simple,” she said, noting McCorvey’s ambivalence about abortion. “The part of her that was worried,” uh-oh, is something wrong? “Had to be cleaned,” she said.
And while McCorvey assures Sweeney AKA Jane Roe that “I’m not acting now”, she’s always been a skilled architect of her own story, Ziegler said. “People on social media and in the media in general tend to think of her as some kind of victim, someone who was manipulated by these social movements, but there are very early stories that she was a fully capable, independent actor who can manipulate only. ‘
“The possibility that she could have manipulated and paid for abortion opponents,” and perhaps even change her story now to come to a more satisfying conclusion, “none of that would surprise me,” said Ziegler. “She was a complex woman with her own goals.”
In a way, that complexity may make her a more suitable symbol for the abortion debate in America than if she would fit the story better from both sides. As Ziegler notes, most Americans support Roe v. Wade and I don’t want to see it fall over. But in some pollsthe majority of Americans also favor restrictions on abortion, such as prohibiting it later in pregnancy. And in focus groups, voters’ views of abortion are generally very personal and do not necessarily reflect political party or ideology.
“The attitude about abortion, when you get into the weeds, is so messy,” Ziegler said. “McCorvey was messy and captured that better than the perfect test case claimant.”
McCorvey’s story has implications for plaintiffs in future abortion cases
McCorvey has received so much attention in part because few women like her have been central to abortion cases – let alone the case that made abortion legal across America. Today, most abortion suits are brought by clinics and doctors, not patients.
But now a case before the Supreme Court, June Medical Services v Gee, that could change. In Gosh, the state of Louisiana and opponents of abortion argue that physicians do not have the legal authority to file a lawsuit on behalf of their patients. If the Supreme Court agrees with them, instead of those who have made abortion rights part of their life’s work, more ordinary people like McCorvey will be at the center of incredibly controversial issues such as Roe v. Wade.
In a way, McCorvey’s story is “a kind of cautionary tale” for future accusers, Ziegler said. The kind of attention she received in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s would only be magnified for people taking on a lawsuit today, in an era of social media and wall-to-wall reporting. “People who are in that position now would only see more of what happened to McCorvey,” Ziegler said. “The stake for a claimant in such a case would be even higher.”
But former Jane Roe’s story also reminds us that as more patients become claimants in abortion cases, Americans shouldn’t expect them to perfect symbols for reproductive rights or any other cause.
There is a temptation “to reduce someone like Norma to an emblem or a trophy,” said Sweeney, “and I think that is really dehumanizing someone by ignoring their complexity.”
McCorvey “was at the heart of this huge divisive issue,” he added, “but in the end she was just a person. She was Norma. ‘