She had the most famous legal name in American history, even if it wasn’t her own.
Norma McCorvey was 22 years old when she sued the state of Texas for the right to an abortion. The suit Roe v. Wade was brought forth by two Dallas-based lawyers Sarah Weddington and Lauren Coffee who were seeking out a candidate to challenge the state of Texas’s ban on abortion in 1969. When the case finally went to the Supreme Court, the rest is history.
For a time after the ruling, McCorvey seemed to revel in her identity as Jane Roe. She attended rallies. Her lawyer Gloria Allred brought her to events where she met the likes of Jane Fonda and Holly Hunter, who portrayed a version of her in a made-for-television movie.
According to McCorvey, her view on abortion changed when she was working at a women’s clinic in Dallas in 1995. Operation Rescue (now known as Operation Save America) moved next door and McCorvey allegedly saw the light. She was baptized by Reverend Flip Benham, a notorious anti-choice protestor from Operation Rescue, who had been arrested numerous times for disorderly conduct in front of clinics.
Suddenly, Jane Roe was “pro-life.” And she took her new story to the media. In addition to appearing at anti-choice events around the country, McCorvey testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2005. With Benham, McCorvey even appealed Roe v. Wade to the federal appeals court in the fifth circuit.
Her whole identity seemed tied to disavowing the case that propelled her to fame. But it was all a lie. And it was a lie funded by extreme anti-choice organizations.
McCorvey revealed this “death-bed confession” to a crew of filmmakers for a documentary that aired on FX called “AKA Jane Roe.” McCorvey passed away in 2017 in Katy, Texas from heart failure.
Operation Rescue allegedly paid her thousands of dollars and coached her on what to say when it came to her ‘pro-life’ stance. “I took their money and they took me out in front of the cameras and told me what to say,” McCorvey tells the filmmakers.
There’s much about McCorvey’s life that was complicated, and full of contradictions.
But there are some straight facts: She did grow up very poor with an abusive mother and was married at the age of 16. She was also a lesbian and was arrested as a teenager for kissing a woman at an Oklahoma City hotel. As part of her born-again Christianity, McCorvey had to “recant” her lesbian lifestyle and a longtime relationship. Her former partner Connie passed away in 2015.
Watching the documentary, it’s clear that McCorvey had a life that was defined by circumstances well beyond her control. Even the eponymous case Roe v. Wade was never about her. Norma McCorvey never had an abortion. Her child was adopted anonymously. The legal win was about women that came after her.
One of the big myths anti-choice legislators use is that women regret having an abortion. Women who have abortions are so wracked by guilt they suffer lifelong psychoses. It was a huge coup for the anti-choice movement to now have Jane Roe on their side, and for her to embody the regretful woman who has now seen the light.
It’s rather heartbreaking to watch McCorvey admit on screen that she was never the right poster woman for abortion. In the documentary her former co-worker at a Dallas clinic and her lawyer Allred don’t seem that surprised to learn her public about-face was all about money.
One person who expresses remorse over the whole charade is Reverend Bob Schenck, a onetime “militant” anti-choice evangelical. “When you did what we did to Norma, you lose your soul.” Now distanced from his former movement, Schenck has taken his activism to gun reform.
As rhetoric around abortion has gotten more gruesome (and non-sensical) from the highest office in the land, “AKA Jane Roe” is a stark reminder that there are outrageous lengths the anti-choice lobby is willing to go to reverse Roe.
We see that firsthand in Texas. The past decade has seen several clinics closing all around the state. For poor women (and often women of color) access to contraception or health services is dire. As the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated in Texas, Abbott and state Republicans’ number one priority was banning abortion.
The filmmakers were with McCorvey the day after the 2016 election. She expressed regret that Hillary Clinton had lost. She mused at the number of abortions Donald Trump has paid for. And she said defiantly Roe isn’t going anywhere. In Texas, that final statement is already on tenuous ground.
Photo: Lorie Shaull/Wikimedia Commons