In May of 2020, a slew of establishment news outlets, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and USA Today, were breathlessly reporting on a supposed bombshell in a new Hulu documentary titled, “AKA Jane Roe.” They deemed it “shocking,” “stunning,” and a “challenge” to the pro-life “narrative.” Why? Because in the film, Norma McCorvey, the actual Jane Roe in the landmark case, Roe v. Wade, claimed to be pro-choice.
Most Americans who read that explanation will scratch their heads. Of course the woman who went to the Supreme Court to argue that she had the right to end her pregnancy was pro-choice. What’s surprising about that?
The few who followed the life of McCorvey as she went from being the face of the decision to legalize abortion to a poster girl for the pro-life movement will understand. More than anything, McCorvey was a deeply enigmatic and often pugnacious figure who seemed to resent being made a symbol for any cause, even as she craved the attention such a role offered.
A Troubled Beginning
Though McCorvey acted as the plaintiff in the case that ushered in legalized abortion, she herself never had one — the ruling was handed down months after she gave birth to a daughter she gave up for adoption. Nor did she parent the two girls she delivered before that. Traumas she suffered as a child may well have made it impossible for her to feel anything more than ambivalence about the prospect of motherhood.
Abandoned by her father at age 13, McCorvey grew up in dire poverty with a mentally-ill brother and a violent, alcoholic mother, who admitted to Vanity Fair in 2013 that she “beat the f***” out of the girl.” From the context of the interview, the elder McCorvey didn’t feel much regret over the thrashings, contending that her daughter was “a die-hard whore.”
One scene in “AKA Jane Roe” brings up troubling questions of what else McCorvey may have suffered at a young age that contributed to her later promiscuity. She recounts that at age 10, she ran away to a hotel and had a sexual encounter with a female friend no older than she was. Groups like Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) warn that young children acting out sexually is one of the most serious red flags for abuse. Yet filmmaker Nick Sweeney, who conducts the interview with McCorvey, doesn’t probe further about the incident or what might have preceded it.
Like so many others, his interest in McCorvey seems to go no further than what she will say about the national debate that came to define her.
Plaintiff for the Cause
Though a regular at gay bars, a fling with a married man left McCorvey pregnant for a third and final time in 1969.
Recalling her first meeting with two pretty, young Dallas lawyers in a local pizza parlor, she wrote in her 1994 memoir, “It was obvious to me even from across the room that these women hadn’t talked to a person like me for a long time, if ever.” She was, by her own admission, “a street person, drug addict, [and] drunk.” At the time, that was just what Linda Coffee and Sarah Weddington needed in a client — someone poor enough they could credibly sue the state of Texas under the argument that she didn’t have the means to travel to another state like California, where abortion was legal. McCorvey fit the bill perfectly…for the moment.
In the long run, though, her rough manners and coarse image were a poor fit for the feminist movement’s flagship issue. Abortion was supposed to be the key that freed bright, career-minded young women from the shackles of children who would be a drag on their ambitions. In fact, the two attorneys had tried to challenge Texas’ law with another client — an engineer with an advanced physics degree. McCorvey, with her survivalist instinct for lying (she tried to claim at first that her Roe pregnancy was the result of rape), and her penchant for telling loud, dirty jokes, was more Roseanne Barr than Gloria Steinem. As one biographer put it, “Her own lawyers had not much cared to know her.”
Nor, eventually, did much of the rest of the abortion rights movement. As reported in The New Yorker, ”McCorvey thought the pro-choice leaders were hoity-toity. They left her out of events commemorating Roe where she figured she should have been a featured speaker… they [tended] to see her as a loose cannon and an unreliable narrator of her own life.”
While luminaries like Gloria Allred spent the late eighties and early nineties introducing McCorvey to Hollywood glitterati like Leonard Nimoy and Valerie Harper, complaints began to arise about her attempts to squeeze money out of activism they, with their law degrees and media jobs, were doing on principle. The New Yorker compared her to “an ornery barfly” buzzing around past closing time.
A look at the hard numbers of what McCorvey actually received, though, offers some hints as to why she might have had to scrape and hustle. NBC paid her not much more than $10,000 for a 1989 TV movie about her life. And the ghostwriter of her HarperCollins autobiography admitted to Vanity Fair that the advance she received was “not a fortune.”
Eventually, having made the right to get an abortion her business, McCorvey was squirreled away answering phones at a Dallas clinic. It was there she met fiery Christian evangelist and Operation Rescue director Flip Benham.
An Activist for Life
Like McCorvey, Benham, a southerner and former saloonkeeper, had a flair for getting attention. In 1995 he rented offices next door to her clinic.
Though ideological opponents, the pair seemed to share a certain likemindedness, with McCorvey later offering this subtle rebuke to her feminist former colleagues: “He doesn’t make me feel bad about myself.” The friendship they struck up soon had McCorvey calling Benham “Flipper” and him dubbing her “Miss Norma.” Within months, Benham announced he had led McCorvey to Christ and newfound convictions about the sanctity of life. The one-time poster-child for Roe was ready to face the cameras for the other side.
Speaking for much of the pro-abortion rights movement, Weddington was hardly bothered to see her former client go. “All Jane Roe ever did was sign a one-page legal affidavit,” she said by way of good riddance.
If that movement was embarrassed to have McCorvey as its face, pro-lifers were all too happy to put her in front of their cameras. Benham helped her set up a pro-life ministry, Roe No More, that paid her $40,000 a year and connected her with publisher Thomas Nelson for a new memoir that provided an $80,000 advance.
She remained outwardly committed to the cause of life for the next 22 years, making public appearances, giving speeches, and, in 2005, testifying before the U.S. Senate for a hearing in which she pleaded with the lawmakers to do “everything in [their] power to reverse Roe v. Wade.”
The curtain seemed to fall on McCorvey’s second act, however, with a 2017 interview for “AKA Jane Roe.”
An Uncertain Legacy
Billed as her deathbed confession, the documentary’s three-minute scene that launched a thousand headlines found McCorvey telling Sweeney, “If a young woman wants to have an abortion, that’s no skin off my ass. That’s why they call it choice.”
The filmmaker played the moment for maximum drama, juddering the camera to underscore the significance of the revelation before cutting to gasps from Allred and tears from feminist icon Charlotte Taft. It proved, The New York Times said, that her “pro-life conversion was a con.”
But other questions her answer should have brought to mind interested The Times, The Washington Post, and the rest of the abortion-friendly media considerably less. McCorvey said she switched sides in 1995 for financial gain, cackling as she added, “I am a good actress.”
By then, heart failing and broke again, she had largely faded from the pro-life circuit, though she maintained many relationships within it, often living with these friends when she had nowhere else to go. Still, Sweeney was there, paying attention to her. Did he pay her money for a performance as well? That’s a question he hasn’t answered.
No abortion rights activists that worked with McCorvey during her Roe days have ever come forward to argue that she told them something similar near the end. Of course they can’t because they no longer knew her. The same can’t be said for the pro-lifers, many of whom kept up contact and insist, the dramatic documentary scene notwithstanding, that her commitment to life was real.
“I know she felt that there were people who used her because they saw her more as Jane Roe than as Miss Norma,” Operation Rescue volunteer Troy Newman told Christianity Today in 2020. “But to me, she was always Miss Norma. She was my friend, and I loved her. She was the Rosa Parks of the pro-life movement, and it was our responsibility to take care of her. It was our privilege to do so.”
Abby Johnson, herself a Roe-like figure as a one-time-Planned-Parenthood-director-turned-life-advocate, told evangelical news outlet World Magazine that McCorvey called her days before her death. She wanted to speak to someone who could understand the spiritual burden she felt she carried at being the cause of many abortions. Johnson recommended that if the World reporter wanted a complete portrait of McCorvey, he should also get in touch with Father Frank Pavone.
The National Director of Priests for Life, Pavone was perhaps closer to McCorvey than any other pro-life leader, having overseen her conversion into the Catholic church. He pointed out that her supposed deathbed confession was filmed nine months before she died and has called on Sweeney to release all the footage of their interviews. It’s a call the filmmaker has so far declined.
“She could be erratic, but her journey isn’t captured in a single story,” said Pavone, who spoke with McCorvey the day she died and officiated her funeral. Another friend from her pro-life days, Karen Garnett, gave her eulogy.
McCorvey’s biographer, Joshua Prager, believes that it is much more likely that the big “bombshell” that captured so much media attention two years ago represented Jane Roe making one final bid for the spotlight. “When she decided that people were being high and mighty with her, it was enough to send her skittering back and forth across what seemed to others like profound dividing lines of conscience and belief.”
But one thing is certain. In the end, only one side was still in Norma McCorvey’s life. And it was the same side that told her, from womb to tomb, life is precious.