“The anti-choice movement will have a field-day with this and exploit it for all it’s worth.” These are words of Kate Michelman, former head of the National Abortion Rights Action League, spoken on the August 10, 1995 airing of ABC News Nightline. Michelman was lamenting the negative impact of the conversion of Norma McCorvey—“Jane Roe” of the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision—to the pro-life movement. Led into the movement by Evangelical preacher Flip Benham and fresh from the baptismal waters, Norma was now “on the other side” and a traitor to the pro-choice cause.
Twenty-five years later, Michelman’s words are echoing in the mouths of nearly every pro-lifer: “The pro-choice movement will have a field-day with this and exploit it for all it’s worth.” I am referring to fall-out of the movie AKA Jane Roe, which premiered on the FX network May 22. The movie, produced and directed by Australian film-maker Nick Sweeny—whose credits include The Sex Robots are Coming and Transgender Kids Camp—dropped like a bomb in the abortion wars. Despite disavowing her role in legalized abortion, and despite her attempts to actually reverse Roe v. Wade, the McCorvey of AKA Jane Roe is depicted as having faked her pro-life position. With help from ex-pro-lifer Robert Schenck, McCorvey accuses the pro-life movement of shamefully using and exploiting her as their “trophy.” McCorvey says she only mouthed the pro-life line because she was paid by pro-lifers to do so.
Prior to May 22, segments of the film were previewed to journalists, resulting in a barrage of sensational headlines, such as this one from the Daily Beast: “Jane Roe’s Deathbed Confession: Anti-Abortion Conversion ‘All an Act’ Paid for by the Christian Right.” The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and every secular media outlet in between has castigated the pro-life movement and declared that McCorvey was not genuinely against abortion after all. As Norma died in 2017, just months after her interviews with Sweeny, she is unable to confirm or refute the message of the film and the way her words are used in it.
With copious photos and videos, AKA Jane Roe deserves praise for an engaging and detailed story of Norma’s difficult and stormy life. From literally the moment of conception her life was off to a rocky start, as Norma narrates over childhood photos: “My mother didn’t want a second child. Me!” Her upbringing was hellish, with an abusive, alcoholic mother and a father who abandoned the family. From the start she felt worthless and unwanted. Already at the tender age of 10, McCorvey experienced same-sex attraction and even ran away with a childhood friend with whom she had her first lesbian experiences. She married at the age of 16 and divorced by 17, but not before giving birth to a daughter she named Melissa. At various stages of her life she would be a drug addict, a drug dealer, and an alcoholic.
Norma went on to have two other children out-of-wedlock. The second child was conceived in 1969, when Norma was 21. It was this pregnancy that led her to challenge the Texas law that banned abortion, resulting in the Roe v. Wade decision. Norma sought to abort the baby at an illegal “clinic” she described as “filthy and cockroach infested.” Too scared to go through with the abortion, she sought advice at a local adoption agency. Someone there put Norma in touch with two attorneys, Sarah Weddington and Linda Coffey, who were looking for a plaintiff around whom they could build a case to advance a woman’s “right” to abortion. In 1970, claiming that she had been raped, Norma signed the legal papers that set in motion litigation that would eventually end in the 1973 Supreme Court Justices’ 7-to-2 decision. Ironically, having placed the “Roe” baby up for adoption, Norma McCorvey never had an abortion. Years later, in answer to a reporter’s question, Norma revealed that her story about being raped was a lie.
A major emphasis of AKA Jane Roe is Norma’s deep resentment toward leaders in the pro-abortion movement who, while all too willing to exploit her, found her an embarrassment. August 10, 1995, fresh from her conversion to Christianity and the pro-life movement, Norma lamented on Nightline that pro-abortion leaders, “Never gave me the respect I thought I deserved.”
Her experience of being exploited and rejected is key to understanding Norma McCorvey, key to her deep need to be welcomed, and key to this film’s accusation that pro-lifers exploited their “big fish,” as Norma describes herself.
Several years after the Roe v. Wade decision, Norma worked as a receptionist at a Dallas abortion center called A Choice for Women. This is where her conversion story begins. The movie introduces the Evangelical preacher Flip Benham, a member of Operation Rescue who regularly participated in protests at Norma’s clinic. Flip is the film’s only pro-life voice. With a flamboyant personality, exuding spiritual confidence, frequently carrying his Bible, his speech laced with a Texas drawl, Flip fulfills the pro-abortion movement’s idea of a typical anti-abortion activist. It was easy for Sweeny to capitalize on this stereotype; footage is shown of Flip, with the converted Norma at his side, burning a rainbow flag, a copy of Roe v. Wade, and the Koran.
Flip, after opening up an Operation Rescue office directly next-door to A Choice for Women, befriended Norma. Because he reached out to her, Norma reexamined her position on abortion, resigned her job at the clinic, and in 1995 was baptized in a backyard swimming pool by Benham himself. The pro-abortionists were stunned and demoralized by Norma’s betrayal. For the next 25 years she publicly repudiated her role in Roe v. Wade, and lent her efforts to a lawsuit seeking to reverse the Court’s decision.
So begins the last 20 minutes of the film. Primping before the camera and taking several deep breaths as if getting ready for the big moment, Norma announces: “This is my death-bed confession.”
Sweeny initiates the dialogue by asking: “Did they use you as a trophy?”
“Of course, I was the big fish,” Norma replies.
Sweeny asks: “Would you say that you used them?” to which Norma responds: “Well, I think it was a mutual thing. I took their money, they put me in front of the cameras and tell me what to say and that’s what I’d say.”
Sweeny asks for an example, at which point Norma launches into a short, canned, pro-life speech lamenting her part in Roe v. Wade.
Again, Sweeny prompts Norma with a statement: “It was all an act.” Norma does not make this statement—it is from the mouth of the film’s director.
Norma responds: “Yeah. I did it well too. I’m a good actress. Course, I’m not acting now.”
At first hearing, it seems Norma is affirming that her pro-life commitment was nothing more than an act. However, the context of this dialogue is not about her pro-life commitment, but about how she was prepped for speeches at pro-life events at which she appeared. The uneducated, unpredictable Norma was primed for her appearances; Schenck states that Norma was coached for fear that, at the time of her conversion, she was not 100 percent pro-life. Indeed, in the Nightline interview following her baptism, Norma expressed support for abortion in the first trimester. But this was very early in her spiritual and pro-life journey. In 1997 she appeared on Father Frank Pavone’s EWTN Defending Life program. Pavone brings up her early support for abortion in the first three months and asks if she now believes that some abortions are OK. To this Norma responds, “Absolutely not,” and explains how she came to support the right-to-life of every unborn child, declaring: “Abortion is not right at any time.”
Sweeny then tries to support the contention that Norma was paid for her anti-abortion advocacy by panning over a series of 990 documents for Roe No More—a group with which Norma was associated—to give the impression that indeed she was paid a whopping sum of $456,911.00. But when one looks carefully at the shot, the sum on the form is seen to be income to the group over a period of years, and it is by no means clear that the money was paid to Norma herself. Indeed, she is only one of three directors indicated on the documents. The attempt to prove pro-lifers paid Norma exorbitantly comes off as contrived.
Indeed, if pro-lifers may be accused of paying Norma to “act,” the AKA Jane Roe filmmaker may be accused of doing the same thing. In May 2016 Norma sent a text message referencing the interviews she’d been doing with the Australian Sweeny to Father Pavone—a text that he saved. In the text, a screenshot of which I have seen, Norma tells him that a film crew is coming to make a movie: “I’m interviewing with a company out of New York via Australia. I’m very happy doing it. I charged of course so I’ll have some bucks at the end, so happy bout that.” Apparently, when the filmmaker pays Norma, she tells the truth, but when pro-lifers supposedly pay Norma, she’s just faking it.
In the film Norma seems to make several disturbing statements in support of abortion. First, she says: “If a young woman wants to have an abortion, fine. It’s no skin off my ass. You know that’s why they call it ‘choice’! It’s your choice.” The short clip hangs in the movie as if it dropped in. No dialogue precedes it—it’s an isolated statement, troubling of course, but without context.
Father Pavone, a personal friend of Norma’s for more than 20 years, said to me: “Her comments about women having choice are very consistent with the view she often discussed with us that God gave us free choice (indeed, as Rev. Flip Benham once pointed out to Norma from Deuteronomy 30), and that women must make choices. However, she also believed that some choices were wrong, including abortion, and spoke that clearly in word and deed for decades.”
Later in the film, seated in a diner, Norma remarks: “Roe versus Wade helps save women’s lives,” giving the impression she supported the Court ruling. The context of the statement is also left unidentified. At another point, Norma is shown on the night of the 2016 presidential election. She expresses support for Hilary Clinton, and exhibits disdain for Donald Trump. She states: “Roe will not be tampered with. They can try, but it’s not going to happen.” Finally, she calls Evangelical preachers “assholes” who “act like God sent them to preach the gospel.”
These “last” words of Norma are at the very least baffling and gravely disconcerting. However, most disturbing of all is the role Reverend Robert Schenck plays in this movie. The ex-pro-lifer is masterfully put to use by Sweeny to corroborate that the pro-life movement exploited Norma and paid for her advocacy, and that she was not genuinely opposed to abortion. Without him, Norma’s so-called “death-bed confession” could not be so easily exploited by pro-abortionists. Indeed, when all is said and done, AKA Jane Roe is really as much Schenck’s movie as it is Norma’s.
Schenck, active in Operation Rescue, worked closely with Benham and other Evangelical leaders and came to know Norma soon after her conversion. But in May 2019 Schenck announced in the pages of the New York Times that he “now supports Roe v. Wade.” Schenck is presented in the film as the voice of conscience and integrity. “What we did with Norma was highly unethical,” he says. “The jig is up.” If pro-lifers had their trophy in Norma McCorvey, the pro-abortionists have theirs in the Reverend Schenck.
Without Schenck, Norma’s apparent pro-abortion statements could be more easily dismissed or excused as the final, cynical outbursts of an elderly, sick woman used and abused all her life. It is Schenck who actually drives the narrative that Norma was exploited and gives Norma’s statements a credibility they would otherwise not have. More than the emotionally volatile Norma, whose whole life was full of ambiguity, inner conflicts, and contradictions, it is Schenck who is responsible for providing this pro-abortion movie the gravitas it needs to discredit the pro-life movement. Schenck stated in his New York Times piece that his new-found support for Roe v. Wade is motivated by a compassion for poor women who need access to abortion. After Norma is shown stating that “Roe versus Wade helps save women’s lives,” the movie cuts back to Schenck who says: “I couldn’t agree more with Norma. Unless you can put yourself in the mind of a woman facing a pregnancy she is not ready for, you cannot pronounce what she must do.”
Also troubling is Schenck’s constant employment of the pronoun “we” in his accusations that pro-lifers exploited Norma. By the use of the term “we” the entire pro-life movement is unfairly discredited. Since Schenck now supports Roe v. Wade it is fair to conclude he participated in this movie to obstruct the goals of the pro-life movement. Pro-lifers have every right to call Schenck to responsibility for his part in this film.
Norma is presented as having feigned her pro-life opposition for the money. Thus, it was absolutely incumbent on Sweeny to confront Norma with the avalanche of evidence that shows her right-to-life position, to all appearances, was sincerely held, evidence accumulated over decades. The fact that this evidence is never displayed and Norma is never asked to comment on it is the film’s greatest flaw and a grave injustice to the pro-life movement. When Norma went on a Rachel’s Vineyard retreat and sobbed tears of remorse, was that faked? When she wrote the poem “Empty Playgrounds” and asked the aborted unborn for forgiveness, was that faked? When she converted to Catholicism in 1998, was that faked? When she spent time and energy to reverse Roe v. Wade though court litigation, was that faked? The movie leaves these questions unanswered. If Sweeny had asked such questions and Norma replied, “Yes, all faked,” Sweeny would have taken full advantage of that response. Perhaps Sweeny did confront Norma with the evidence and didn’t like the answer.
No matter what Norma appears to be saying in AKA Jane Roe, the evidence is there that in the years Norma fought against abortion, her opposition was genuine. Those who knew her well, and spent days in her company, have vouched that she was a true pro-lifer.
Other than Flip Benham, no other pro-lifers who knew Norma well are given a voice in this film. No one was interviewed to present a reaction to Norma’s statements; indeed, that Norma never repudiated her pro-life stance is affirmed by the statement her daughter Melissa released upon her mother’s death. In it she thanked all those who expressed gratitude “for the example Mom gave them in standing up for life and truth. Though she was the Jane Roe of Roe v. Wade, she worked hard for the day when that decision would be reversed.”
On the very day Norma died, Father Pavone, together with Janet Morana, executive director of Priests for Life, called her. In the last moments of her life, her pillow draped with a rosary, Pavone and Morana say that Norma told them in a feeble voice, gasping for breath: “I want you guys to promise me to never back away from undoing the decision I was a part of.”
Those are the real last words of Norma.
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