Woman Behind <em>Roe v. Wade</em> Leaves Confused Legacy In ‘AKA Jane Roe’

Woman Behind Roe v. Wade Leaves Confused Legacy In ‘AKA Jane Roe’

Norma McCorvey went from being a lesbian abortion advocate to a born-again Catholic and pro-life spokeswoman. Upon her death, she said it was all a lie — but which part?
Caroline D'Agati
By

Norma McCorvey is being pushed in a wheelchair through a park. She’s wearing sunglasses, with another set of glasses resting on her head. She is smoking a cigarette, even though in the last scene we saw her wearing an oxygen tube.

“I learned straight on that if you’re nice and quiet and polite, nobody pays any attention to you — and I like attention.” When she shows us her room in her nursing home, she points out a picture on her wall. “That’s a picture of Jesus. He’s my boyfriend.”

This is how the new FX/Hulu documentary, “AKA Jane Roe,” introduces us to the woman whose unwanted pregnancy in 1963 sparked the landmark Roe v. Wade case. While McCorvey and the documentary’s director see it as her “deathbed confession,” it raises just as many questions as it answers.

McCorvey went from being a lesbian abortion advocate to a born again Catholic and pro-life spokeswoman. Upon her death, she said it was all a lie — but which part?

The Road to Roe v. Wade

Growing up with a drunk mother and absent father, McCorvey desperately sought escape. As a child, she stole money from a local gas station to run away with a friend. Staying at a hotel in Oklahoma City, the cleaning lady found McCorvey and her friend kissing and called the police.

When they were caught, 10-year-old Norma was sent to reform school. After she was released, she married at the age of 16. When she told her husband she was pregnant, she says he hit her and accused her of cheating.

McCorvey’s mom and stepdad eventually won custody of the baby. McCorvey says that her mother told the courts about her lesbian relationships, claiming she was a drunkard and unfit mother. She then had another child, giving it up for adoption. By 1969, she was pregnant again and sought an abortion, claiming that she was raped (a claim she would later recant) in order to get doctors to perform the abortion.

At the time, attorneys Sarah Weddington and Linda Coffee were looking for a case to challenge abortion laws in Texas. They needed a plaintiff—a pregnant woman who was too poor to travel across state lines to seek a legal abortion. McCorvey fit the bill.

By the time the case won its 1973 victory before the Supreme Court, McCorvey had given birth and had little to do with the case. “The phone rang and it was Sarah [Weddington] and she said, ‘We won.’ And I said, ‘No, Sarah, you won.’ She says, ‘Well, I thought that maybe you would be excited.’ I said, ‘Why would I be excited? I had a baby but I gave her away. It’s for all the women to come after me.’”

From Pro-Choice Icon to Pro-Life Convert

As the abortion debate came to a fever pitch in the late 1980s, McCorvey became a spokeswoman for abortion. She enlisted the help of famed attorney Gloria Allred, working up a PR storm and appearing at events and in the media for years.

By 1995, McCorvey was working at an abortion facility in Dallas. She and local pro-life activist Flip Benham had become mutual antagonists. Benham and his organization eventually moved right next door to McCorvey’s clinic, one day joining her on a bench outside.

“And that’s when he gave me his testimony,” she says in the documentary. “And he was a bad-ss. A sinner—just like everyone else. Womanizer. You know, he did it all. It’s kind of like my life.”

McCorvey professed Jesus, Benham baptized her, and overnight, McCorvey became the pro-life movement’s greatest trophy. She spoke across the country, on television, and was even arrested in 2009 for pro-life activism. As far as we know, she gave up her sexual relationship with her female partner, Connie Gonzalez. As the documentary shows, many different parts of the pro-life movement paid her for her work.

After her conversion, McCorvey told the media, “The pro-lifers have shown me what it’s like to be a human being for the very first time in my whole life. They’ve loved me, they’ve nurtured me and they’ve cared for me. I’ve never felt so good about being a woman or about being just a person than I have with these people.”

In response to the betrayal felt on the part of her former compatriots in the pro-choice camp, McCorvey replied, “All I’m simply doing is watching out for Norma’s salvation and Norma’s -ss, and it’s just that simple.”

Who Was Using Whom?

Towards the end of the film, the director has a shocking conversation with McCorvey:

“Did they use you as a trophy?”

“Of course. I was the big fish.”

“Do you think they would say that you used them?”

“Well, I think it was a mutual thing. You know, I took their money and they put me out in front of the cameras and told me what to say and that’s what I’d say.”

“It was all an act?”

“Yeah, I did it well, too. I am a good actress. Of course I’m not acting now.”

It’s clear McCorvey has not been the most reliable narrator and the film has its own agenda. In the days before her death in 2017, she called anti-abortion activist and former Planned Parenthood employee Abby Johnson. Johnson says McCorvey’s heart was burdened by the law that bore her pseudonym.

Another pro-life activist, Fr. Frank Pavone, knew McCorvey for decades and rejects this portrayal of her. “I knew her and was one of her key spiritual guides for 22 years, starting in 1995 with her baptism, right through the conversation we had on the day she died. I was privileged to lead and preach at her funeral. I knew her struggles and her pain. She didn’t just have positions; she had deep wounds because of her involvement with Roe vs. Wade, and I guided her through the healing of those wounds, in the quiet hours of struggle that nobody saw or heard about. Those are things you don’t fake.”

But in the film, she also said, “They’re a—holes. They all act like God sent them to preach the gospel.”

Her mixed messages mean that neither side can really claim Norma McCorvey as a trophy. She painted herself as a sincere believer in both causes then became an apostate of both. Perhaps that’s what McCorvey would want — a legacy independent from both sides that used her. Still, it makes for a lonely place in history.

“AKA Jane Roe” is available to stream on FX on Hulu.

Caroline D'Agati is a writer, former park ranger, and New Jersey expatriate living in DC. She studied English at Georgetown and media studies at The New School. You can follow her on Twitter at @carodagati.

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