The same year the one-hit wonder, “Cult of Personality” by Living Colour hit the charts, Norma McCorvey went on a whirlwind press tour, presented as the face of the abortion rights movement. As Jane Roe, she was the perfect victim, hitting all the nighttime news segments with her compelling story.
It seems abortion proponents quickly realized Norma wasn’t the most consistent advocate. Her fragile mental state left them unsure of what she would divulge during interviews. At one point, they were shocked when she admitted she had lied about being sexually assaulted, and at another shared she personally believed abortion was wrong.
Eventually pro-choice advocacy groups reverted back to their practice of using wealthy celebrities to plead their cause, leaving Norma to work as an abortion facility counselor. When pro-choice speaking engagements dried up, and Norma began to feel used and abandoned by her former comrades, she defected to the pro-life side.
She was helped in her desertion by pro-life offers of fame and financial compensation, if she were to speak out against the evils of abortion. Or so FX’s newly debuted documentary, “AKA Jane Roe,” would have you believe.
Paid to Shill for Pro-Lifers?
The documentary, based on deathbed interviews with Norma McCorvey, highlights a renouncement of her pro-life position, sometimes in very crass terms: “if a woman wants an abortion…. it’s no skin off my -ss,” she says dismissively at one point. She claims she was a paid spokeswoman for pro-life groups, primarily Operation Rescue.
Pastor and former anti-abortion activist Rev. Rob Schenck confirms her accounting, claiming she was paid out of concern she would “go back to the other side.” This implies some of those working with McCorvey knew, or at least suspected, her conversion was not solid. Famed feminist lawyer Gloria Alfred, who had initially ushered her into the spotlight, once called McCorvey’s jump from pro-choice to pro-life a “career move.”
I’m not going to attempt to ferret out “Jane Roe’s” loyalties, because her loyalties don’t matter. I’m also not going to comment on the paychecks she received from pro-life organizations. There’s no law saying speakers can’t receive compensation for sharing their stories. Abortion is wrong no matter what Norma McCorvey ultimately believed or was paid.
Why the Pro-Life Movement’s Decisions Matter
What does matter is the pro-life movement’s decision to turn McCorvey into a monumental figurehead. She spoke at events, in Senate hearings, and as a representative for women like me, the poor and undereducated whose children are primary targets for legalized abortion.
She spent more than a decade actively working for the pro-life cause, and more than 20 as a pro-life icon before she slowly faded out of the spotlight. If pro-life leaders knew there was a chance her conviction was insincere, as Schenck suggests, this is appalling.
Some refuse to entertain any questions regarding McCorvey’s fickleness, asserting it’s in poor taste to speak ill of the dead. But she herself assured we would be speaking about her when she filmed the interviews used for this documentary. We can’t ignore this in an effort to be kind.
In an important move, pro-life advocates who worked with her — especially in the early days of her conversion experience — have begun to clarify the role they played in perpetuating her celebrity within the movement. This is vital not out of cruelty, or to point out her flaws, but because the accusations she made against them are very serious and need to be addressed. Questions regarding her legacy have the potential to taint associations with people and groups who continue to play a large part in the modern pro-life movement.
Cults of Personality Are Dangerous
If this documentary is accurate, Operation Rescue propelled a deeply conflicted woman with serious emotional issues, and possible mental health problems, into the spotlight as one of our most prominent champions at a time the anti-abortion movement was particularly vulnerable to those who used it as an excuse to commit violent acts.
I had an abortion in 1994, before FACE laws were enacted. The scene outside the clinic I went to was very similar to what was shown in the documentary. It was chaos, with violent people attempting to gain access to the interior of my car. Choosing to use an ambivalent McCorvey as a spokesperson during such a tumultuous time is shocking decision to me.
When we allow personalities to illustrate our arguments, rather than facts, we run the risk of those personalities stumbling over their feet of clay. While I believed McCorvey to be a grifter previous to viewing the FX show, after watching I’m inclined to concur with what some have said: She was a complicated woman suffering from untreated mental illness, raised in an environment where looking out for herself meant bending towards whomever could keep her safe, sometimes without the ability to discern whether that was detrimental for the long-term.
Yet I still view her presence in the context of pro-life activism as damaging. This isn’t due to her continued influence — those who believe this will pull young people away from the pro-life movement will be sorely disappointed, as for many pro-lifers McCorvey has been a largely historical character, irrelevant except as a memory.
This narrative is damaging because of what it says about us wanting to win at all costs, of our willingness to look away when someone may be suffering, or when her actions could potentially reflect poorly on the witness of thousands of others.
An Opportunity to Recalibrate
In my ten years of working within this movement, I have noted we rely heavily on figureheads, which leaves us at risk of defections like this. We don’t need cults of personality — whether the personality is a politician, a pundit, or a survivor from tiny town in Texas.
Facts, honesty, and conviction are all on our side. To continue the life-affirming work we do, we need compassionate workers who won’t be tempted to rely on those who’d be better off taking the time to heal.
In her final performance, McCorvey has given the pro-life movement a profound gift: exposing the potential for great cruelty. To be clear — as with the irrelevance of her personal convictions regarding abortion, whether the instigator of cruelty was Norma herself, or the pro-life movement, doesn’t matter. People were used, which is unacceptable in a movement that centers upon the value of all life.
Where else have we looked away in terms of someone’s ability to be in the limelight? Who have we pushed into the forefront before he or she was ready? Where else have we allowed someone’s support of our position to blind us to the inconsistencies in her narrative? Whose bad behavior have we covered for, because we didn’t want to “hurt the movement”?
Whatever McCorvey was during her years of activism for both pro-choice and pro-life organizations, she wasn’t capable of fully ascertaining the risks and benefits of her choices. We should have known better, and we must do better both for the benefit of the movement and for the sometimes broken people who fight for our cause.
We have an opportunity to take a fearless moral inventory of the movement. It’s our choice to take advantage of that opportunity. If we do, we can only be stronger. If we don’t, the next cult of personality may ultimately end up expanding abortion access.
Future activists may not be as benign and powerless as McCorvey evidently was, but every pro-choice woman has the potential to be a Jane Roe. We need to be ready to promote our position on the basis of our arguments, instead of worrying about the havoc a deathbed confession from one person could wreak.