The double reversals of Jane Roe

The landmark US Supreme Court decision that in 1973 legalized abortion in the US is Roe v. Wade where ‘Jane Roe’ was the pseudonym given to the woman who brought the case who feared using her real name given the highly charged nature of the case and the violence that was, and still is, directed against women who seek abortions, abortion providers, and supporters by anti-choice zealots. Over time, Roe’s name was revealed to be Norma McCorvey and she later created a sensation said in the mid-1990s when she said that she had become a born-again Christian and an anti-gay, anti-abortion activist. (She had been a lesbian for almost all her life.) This was treated as a tremendous coup by the Christian right who would parade her before any media microphone and indeed anyone who would listen.

But in a new documentary AKA Jane Roe made by the TV channel FX that is due to be released tomorrow, in interviews just before she died in 2017, McCorvey confesses that her religious conversion and change in attitudes was all a sham. She said that she was broke and homeless and that she was given a lot of money by the religious right to entice her to do what she did.

The Jane Roe of Roe v. Wade, who has become a mouthpiece for the right wing, is ready to tell the world that her decades-long stint as the shiniest trophy of the anti-abortion movement was, in fact, a sham. She took their money ― nearly half a million dollars ― listened to their explicit coaching, and said what she needed to say. But privately, she always believed that “if a young woman wants to have an abortion, fine. That’s no skin off my ass. You know, that’s why they call it choice. It’s your choice.”

“So it was all an act?” asks the filmmaker, off-camera.

“Yeah,” says McCorvey, wryly. “I did it well, too. I am a good actress. Of course, I’m not acting now.”

The “now” she is referencing is in fact 2017, the year McCorvey died. On Friday, audiences can see her confession in the new documentary “AKA Jane Roe” on FX. The explosive film, which runs a tight hour and 15 minutes, tells a tragic story about a woman who became the poster girl for two sides of an ongoing political debate.

When McCorvey was just 22 and pregnant, she signed on to become the plaintiff known as “Jane Roe” after being denied a legal abortion in her home state of Texas. The case, Roe v. Wade, went all the way up to the Supreme Court in 1973, and the ruling legalized abortion across all 50 states. After making her identity public in the 1980s, McCorvey spent years working in an abortion clinic, and then the following two decades as a born-again Christian anti-abortion crusader. This narrative of sin and subsequent saving paid dividends for the Christian right for years.

There were people in the religious right who knew or strongly suspected that McCorvey was doing this just for the money but despite claiming to be god-fearing, upstanding, moral people, they just did not care. Lying for Jesus comes naturally to them.

The documentary, which comes out on Friday, digs into McCorvey’s sudden change of course in the late 1990s after meeting two evangelical leaders, Rev. Flip Benham and Rev. Rob Schenck. “I was the Big Fish,” McCorvey says in the film, referencing how valuable the Christian right viewed her conversion from a pro-choice symbol to anti-abortion Christian activist.

Schenck was also featured in the documentary and admits that he knew McCorvey was being used by the movement as something of a pawn. “I knew what we were doing,” he says in the film. “And there were times when I was sure she knew. And I wondered, ‘Is she playing us?’ What I didn’t have the guts to say was, ‘because I know damn well we’re playing her.’”

McCorvey was a symbol for the abortion rights movement for nearly two decades, but because she never actually had an abortion and reportedly had little in common with many of the educated, upper-middle-class feminists of the pro-choice movement, they never fully embraced her.

Robin Marty, a former reporter and current communications director for the Yellowhammer Fund, a group advocating reproductive justice in the South, said she was not surprised when McCorvey aligned herself with the anti-abortion side back in the late 1990s. And she was “absolutely not, in any way, shape or form, surprised” by McCorvey’s confession in the FX documentary, she told HuffPost.

“Most of the people in the [pro-choice] movement honestly already assumed that,” Marty said. “Our movement doesn’t really do a lot to elevate people or really share power in a lot of ways. So it’s not surprising that feeling somewhat rejected by our side, eventually, Norma chose to take advantage of the other side.”

Toni Van Pelt, president of the National Organization for Women, echoed Marty’s reaction. “I am actually not surprised at all by this. I thought she was lying when I first heard it,” she told HuffPost. “Did I blame her? No. Being a woman, being queer, she had a long, hard road to travel.”

McCorvey’s is a tragic story in so many ways, with intersecting lines of religion, politics, gender, sexuality, and class.

Here’s the trailer for the documentary.


  1. publicola says

    I doubt this scam will change any minds on the christian right. They already twist the truth and the teachings of their “god” for their own purposes, and have since the dawn of christianity. They will continue to do so. But it is satisfying to have the truth come out at last. Blessed are the truth- seekers, for they shall obtain truth.

  2. rich rutishauser says

    This is such a sad story all around. Poor woman denied basic rights, fights and gets said basic rights but is still poor, then gets paid off to deny those rights gained to others for a measly $20k/year, and she is only somewhat less poor.

    I want to be mad at her, but I have been at the bottom of the income ladder too and I am not sure if I could stand strong on principles, but still not make rent or buy food for my family.

  3. bmiller says

    publicola: What exactly ARE the “truth and teachings of their god”? When were religious teachings NOT used as political tool? That is the main point. And for every nice platitude, Jesus (purportedly) expressed repellant ideas, so the typical liberal they are not good Christians argument falls prey to the same cherry picking as the nastiest fundamentalist?

    (I agree with you otherwise. I just dislike the common idea that the Abrahamic religions are wonderful things on the whole if we just culled the nastier “interpretations’. They are not. )

  4. publicola says

    I was referring to what christians claim to be the truth, not that their teachings are true.

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