I was raised in a highly religious, conservative environment. The first political action I ever attended was an anti-abortion demonstration. It cannot be understated how central abortion is to the religious right, how much its political moves are oriented around that issue. In articles and books I read on the subject, the case of Norma McCorvey was cited over and over. She was the “Jane Roe” of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court case which ended with the ruling that the Constitution protects the right to have an abortion. In the mid-’90s, however, McCorvey converted to Christianity and became a vocal anti-abortion crusader. If even Jane Roe renounced abortion, then surely that was proof enough of its evil.
But as with a good deal of right-wing activism, McCorvey’s about-face was heavily astroturfed. Shortly before passing away in 2017, she made a “deathbed confession” to filmmaker Nick Sweeney. With his film AKA Jane Roe now out, that revelation has become public: McCorvey was paid nearly half a million dollars by various anti-abortion groups over the years; she was pro-choice all along, and her pro-life agitations were nothing but “an act.”
In the film, she explains: “I was the big fish. I think it was a mutual thing. I took their money and they’d put me out in front of the cameras and tell me what to say … If a young woman wants to have an abortion, that’s no skin off my ass. That’s why they call it choice.”
AKA Jane Roe arrives at this reveal after laying out McCorvey’s life up to that point, in which Roe v. Wade was but one episode. In the process, the film unearths thorny questions about how movements use people, and often not to their benefit. Attorneys Linda Coffee and Sarah Weddington needed someone seeking an abortion in order to challenge the existing legal order; anyone would have done, and McCorvey didn’t attend any of the trials in the Roe v. Wade process. That case resulted in an unquestionable and significant public good, but McCorvey still had to carry the pregnancy she’d sought to end to term.
Afterward, being perceived as a coarse, inarticulate, impoverished woman, the feminist movement didn’t seem to have a use for her. She worked in an abortion clinic and attended a massive reproductive rights protest in 1989, but despite being publicly known as Jane Roe by then, she was not invited to give a speech, passed over in favor of celebrities. Holly Hunter won an Emmy for playing a character based on her in a TV movie, while McCorvey herself struggled to make ends meet — a struggle which she says eventually led her into the arms of the anti-abortion side.
McCorvey’s friction with reproductive rights activism illustrates the class-blindness of mainstream feminism, while her subsequent instrumentation by the likes of Operation Rescue demonstrates the pure cynicism of the far-right. Anti-abortion activists interviewed in the film, such as “Flip” Benham and Reverend Rob Schenck, either tacitly or overtly admit as such. Schnenck, the more reflective of the two, does so guiltily, while Benham is much more defiant, asserting that the end justifies the means and denying that McCorvey’s convictions were ever in doubt. (This is, mind you, after the video of her confession is played for him.) Attitudes like Benham’s are the rule and not the exception among religious conservatives, and not just when it comes to religion. You see the same rationalizations used to justify support of the decidedly un-Christlike President Trump. God uses unholy people to holy ends all the time!
AKA Jane Roe doesn’t forget to center McCorvey throughout. The portrait that emerges is of someone who grappled with abuse throughout her life, and how poverty and desperation are often stronger political motivators than pure conviction. Disquietingly, we see how in seeking financial stability and a community, she forfeited parts of herself, denying her queerness and ending a long-term relationship she had with another woman for the sake of her religious support. While the documentary is embarrassing for the conservatives who crowed over McCorvey as a prize for decades, it also posits its own challenges to liberals and leftists over the need to care for our own.
AKA Jane Roe is available to stream on Hulu.