AKA Jane Roe: behind the headline-making abortion documentary

Filmed in the last year of her life, the film tells the story of Norma McCorvey, who was paid, she says, to convert to anti-abortion activism in 1995

When, in 1969, a 21-year-old woman named Norma McCorvey met with two lawyers about getting an abortion in Texas, she was not interested in sweeping national change. She was pregnant for the third time and working as a housekeeper; the stakes were personally huge, and time sensitive. She signed the affidavit for a lawsuit challenging the state’s abortion ban as “Jane Roe”, the anonymous plaintiff in the landmark supreme court case which, in 1973, secured abortion access for women in all 50 states.

For years afterward, McCorvey went public as a hero for abortion rights, though she never actually received the procedure. So it was a shock when she dramatically “converted” to evangelical Christianity (and later Catholicism) in 1995, joining the ranks of the anti-abortion movement that has effectively gutted abortion access across the US in the decades since. For 25 years, McCorvey’s shift was framed as an archetype of redemption, the Christian right’s greatest evidence of the personal sin of abortion, a lethal narrative of regret.

Except much of that narrative was a lie, at least according to McCorvey in a new documentary filmed in the final year of her life (she died of heart failure aged 69 in February 2017). An hour into the 80-minute film AKA Jane Roe, McCorvey, hooked to oxygen in her nursing home room in Katy, Texas, reconfigures her “conversion” as less a change of heart than a change for cash. “This is my deathbed confession,” she says with a shallow laugh. The film’s director, Nick Sweeney, asks McCorvey: “Did [the evangelicals] use you as a trophy?” “Of course. I was the big fish,” she says. “Do you think they would say that you used them?” Sweeney responds. “Well,” says McCorvey, “I think it was a mutual thing. I took their money and they took me out in front of the cameras and told me what to say. And that’s what I’d say.”

The admission, filmed in 2016 but revealed to media this week, generated shock and dismay, particularly for women who grew up with McCorvey’s flip lorded over by the anti-abortion movement. But in the context of the film, which establishes McCorvey’s history as an unreliable narrator, and the anti-abortion movement’s decades of smokescreens and lies in protecting its argument, it’s less a bombshell than an eye-widening confirmation. As AKA Jane Roe reveals, the real Jane Roe – survivor of neglect and abuse, working-class, an out lesbian for decades, a woman often craving validation – never fit tidily into either the sweeping, idealistic image of the reproductive rights movement nor the redemption archetype constructed by anti-abortionists.

According to Sweeney, the headline-grabbing “deathbed confession” arose “organically” over the process of filming. “I absolutely did not expect it to go in the direction that it did,” he told the Guardian. “But I was shocked at the things that Norma admitted to and told me.” The film presents documents disclosing $456,911 in “benevolent gifts” from the anti-abortion movement to McCorvey over an unspecified time. Asked directly by Sweeney, the Rev Flip Benham, who targeted McCorvey for conversion in the mid-90s, opening an office next to her house, and touts their relationship in the film, denies paying McCorvey, but also adds: “Yeah, but she chose to be used. That’s called work. That’s what you’re paid to be doing!”

The Rev Rob Schenck, who accompanied McCorvey in many of her appearances as a “born-again” evangelical but has since publicly reversed his stance on abortion, says McCorvey was “a target” of the movement, a “needy” person easily exploited by clergy “used to the those personalities”, and that “at a few points, she was actually on the payroll, as it were”. McCorvey was at times “coached on what to say” in her public appearances, to make sure she stayed on message. “She was our Oscar,” he says, “and we were going to put her on the mantle and show her off to the world.”

Norma McCorvey, Jane Roe in the 1973 court case, left, and her attorney Gloria Allred hold hands as they leave the Supreme Court building in Washington.
Norma McCorvey, Jane Roe, in the 1973 court case, left, and her attorney, Gloria Allred, hold hands as they leave the supreme court building in Washington. Photograph: J Scott Applewhite/AP

Which is perhaps why, when Sweeney first reached out to her in April 2016, McCorvey was “suspicious”. What congregation did he belong to? she asked. What anti-abortion group? “I think she was very grateful that I was somebody who was uninvolved in the debate,” he said. “And I think that was part of the reason why she agreed to meet up and why she was so honest and volunteered all of the things that she did.” At that point, McCorvey’s health was already in decline, and “I think she felt like she had nothing to gain and nothing to lose at this point in her life, and she wanted to set the record straight on her own terms,” said Sweeney.

Using interviews filmed over 10 months and archival footage, AKA Jane Roe traces McCorvey’s life as a survivor of abuse hungry for recognition, prickly but vulnerable. Her alcoholic mother was not prepared to raise her, while her father walked out when she was young and barely returned. She remembers her early teenage years an all-girls state reform school, where she was placed at 10 after robbing a convenience store, fondly; there was structure there, and friends, and burgeoning sexual relationships with her classmates. She got pregnant for the first time at 16, after meeting and marrying a man who propositioned her at the Sonic fast-food restaurant where she worked. When she signed the Jane Roe affidavit in 1969, she was snagged, as one pro-choice activist explains in the film, by a paradox of the abortion rights movement: with her rough edges, she wasn’t an ideal “poster girl” for abortion access, but that poster girl couldn’t have been the plaintiff in the first place.

That paradox underscored McCorvey’s alienation from the reproductive rights movement once she went public in the 1980s (she did not match the cool glamour of Gloria Steinem, the broad appeal of Hollywood activists like Cybil Shepherd, the sanded-down Hollywood character played by Holly Hunter in the 1989 movie Roe vs Wade). The film also recaps her partnership with the lawyer Gloria Allred, who reacts with shock to McCorvey’s confession, to capture attention for abortion rights in the late 80s and early 90s.

Norma McCorvey in AKA Jane Roe.
Norma McCorvey in AKA Jane Roe. Photograph: AP

The “conversion” remains baffling, especially as Benham and his notorious organization Operation Rescue forced McCorvey to end her 25-plus-year relationship with her girlfriend, Connie Gonzalez. But the arc of McCorvey’s life as someone both scrapping to get by and eager to please is clear. “At different points in her life, people on all sides have wanted Norma McCorvey to fit their expectations or to suit their aims,” said Sweeney. “There’s a temptation to make somebody like Jane Roe into a trophy or an emblem and ignore the complexity of her life.”

Whereas in old news clips, McCorvey appears tepid, on script for the intended audience, in AKA Jane Roe, she comes off as unburdened – conspiratorial, seditious, a foul-mouthed quoter of Macbeth. Even her “deathbed confession” is itself revealed with a half-ironic shrug. Sweeney fondly remembered her “gallows humor” that he got to know during filming. “That real Norma is a really funny, entertaining person,” he said.

In the film, after her reveal, Sweeney asks: “It was all an act?” “Yeah,” she confirms. “I did it well, too. I am a good actress. Of course, I’m not acting now.” Taken at her word, her ultimate stance on abortion was characteristically, as she says, “looking out for Norma’s salvation and Norma’s ass”: “If a young woman wants to have an abortion, fine. That’s no skin off my ass,” she says. “You know, that’s why they call it ‘choice’. It’s your choice.”

  • AKA Jane Roe premieres on FX in the US on 22 May, Hulu on 23 May and in the UK at a later date


Adrian Horton

The GuardianTramp

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