By now you may have already heard the news that was leaked in advance of the new FX documentary AKA Jane Roe, about the life and public career of Norma Jean McCorvey, the once-anonymous “Roe” in the historic 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion nationwide.
McCorvey — who infamously switched sides in 1995, announcing she’d become pro-life — is seen in the film’s opening minutes making a “deathbed confession” shortly before her passing in 2017. She tells the film’s director Nick Sweeney that she had been paid by the religious right to come out against abortion.
“I took their money and they put me in front of the cameras and told me what to say,” McCorvey, in failing health and on oxygen, says. As for her personal views, they had never changed: “If a young woman wants to have an abortion, fine, you know, it's no skin off my ass,” she said. “That’s why they call it choice.”
My guess is that most people who are curious enough to watch this doc — and it is a must-watch doc — will lug into the living room with them some kind of baggage, namely their own views about abortion, and judge the film’s subject accordingly.
This isn’t a film about a political issue, although I certainly understand why FX’s publicity department would frame it that way. AKA Jane Roe is the story of the woman whose case launched the battle over abortion rights, the scorched-earth über-conflict of our age. Like slavery before the Civil War, abortion is the sun around which our other political issues revolve. No abortion war, no culture war. Gay birthday cakes only get you so far. Abortion is the closest thing to a perpetual energy machine we have. It can fuel anger and extremist responses on both sides in perpetuity.
After years of anonymity, McCorvey entered the fray just as it was escalating to a five-alarm, never-ending dumpster fire. AKA Jane Roe made me understand why it was so tragic that this damaged woman, of all people, would put herself time and again at the tender mercies of abortion combatants who saw her less as a person than as a means to an end.
Interviews with McCorvey and others flesh out her years prior to Roe. She was born in Texas to an alcoholic mother who abused her mentally and physically. As soon as she could flee, she and a lover took off for Oklahoma, a move that landed her in reform school. That turned out to be an oasis compared to what happened after — sexual abuse while living with a relative, then marriage at 16 to a bum who punched her when she told him she was pregnant.
Her emotional neediness, in other words, was well-earned. Her desire to be wanted, to matter, to have her life mean something after an upbringing like that is perfectly understandable. But that desire would lead her to make some choices that would lead to further exploitation by the pro-choice and then pro-life movements.
McCorvey did not abort her second child — she wanted to, but Texas wouldn’t let her, and she agreed to sue the state, leading to the Supreme Court’s 7-2 decision in her favor. After that she could have gone back to life with her longtime girlfriend Connie and left Roe in her rearview mirror. But that, it turns out, was not McCorvey’s way.
Instead, she went public — and became a rock star, albeit a rock star who cleaned houses for a living. Her house and car were shot up, presumably by people like the ones responsible for a wave of bombings, assaults, and murders against abortion supporters as the culture war escalated into actual war. Still, it was fame of a kind. Holly Hunter won an Emmy portraying McCorvey in a TV movie.
Over time, though, McCorvey grew unhappy about her role in the movement. She wanted to be on stage at rallies with Gloria Steinem and Whoopi Goldberg. She arranged her own media tour instead, with feminist lawyer Gloria Allred’s help. Charlotte Taft, an abortion movement insider, admits that McCorvey was kept at arm’s length, ostensibly because of her unpredictable nature, but really because she didn’t fit the profile. “She was not the poster girl that would have been helpful to the pro-choice movement,” Taft says. “However, an articulate, educated person would not have made a good plaintiff in Roe v. Wade.”
Then along came evangelical pastor Rob Schenck and Operation Rescue bigwig Flip Benham, who flipped her to the pro-life side. “All I’m doing is looking out for Norma’s salvation and Norma’s ass,” McCorvey explained later — a quote that both captures her public tough-gal stance and hints at the deeper vulnerability that made her an easy mark.
“What we were doing with Norma was highly unethical,” Schenck admits. Like other pro-life evangelicals scarred by the culture wars, he has recanted many of his actions. To Sweeney’s credit, both men are treated fairly in AKA Jane Roe, though Benham’s explanation as to why Norma had to stop seeing Connie — by likening a homosexual relationship to eating bonbons — will likely make you laugh or scream or both.
Benham seems to be either in denial or lying when asked whether McCorvey was paid to join the movement, though I’m not sure it matters. Sweeney displays some tax-return forms that appear to show McCorvey being paid speaking fees and “benevolence gifts” totaling more than $456,000, which sounds like a lot until you divide it by 22 years.
Schenck is not wrong to lament the pro-life movement’s exploitation of McCorvey, including her funeral at which Flip Benham preached. Then again, using her “deathbed confession” to gin up interest in AKA Jane Roe is itself a form of exploitation.
But the enduring impression of this film isn’t of the interested actors who found it convenient to use Norma McCorvey — it’s of McCorvey herself. Colorful and defiant to the end, she didn’t want our pity. It was her choice to go public, and it was her choice to go rogue. That’s why they call it choice.
AKA Jane Roe premieres tonight on FX and begins streaming Saturday on Hulu.
Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.