Norma McCorvey’s other name is one of the most instantly-recognizable names in the world – Jane Roe, i.e. the woman who served as the plaintiff in the infamous Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion in the United States. To pro-life Americans, however, McCorvey was much more than Jane Roe. She was a convert to the pro-life cause, a long-time fellow warrior in the cause of life, a sister in Christ and, for many, a close friend.
After McCorvey passed away in 2017, those who knew her rightly expected that this would be her legacy: that of a woman who in her youth was used by powerful pro-abortion forces to transform U.S. abortion law, but who later saw the light, and spent the final decades of her life fighting to overturn the Supreme Court decision that bore her name.
However, a new documentary – AKA Jane Roe – has claimed to call all of this into question. Even before the documentary was released last week, headlines appeared in all the major mainstream publications reporting the documentary’s most-shocking claim: that McCorvey’s pro-life conversion was a farce, that she had been “paid” to change her tune on the issue of abortion, and that all her pro-life activism was just an elaborate “act.”
If true, this claim would completely upend McCorvey’s legacy, and deliver a major blow to the pro-life cause.
When McCorvey converted to the pro-life cause in 1995, Kate Michelman, former head of the National Abortion Rights Action League, bemoaned the news.
“The anti-choice movement will have a field-day with this and exploit it for all it’s worth,” she said.
Now, however, the pro-abortion media is having a field day with AKA Jane Roe, gloating in its supposed revelations.
“Norma McCorvey’s Pro-Life Conversion was a Con,” proclaimed a headline in the New York Times. “Jane Roe’s Deathbed Confession: Anti-Abortion Conversion ‘All an Act’ Paid for by the Christian Right,” wrote the Daily Beast.
The question, however, is: is it true? Was McCorvey’s pro-life conversion a con? Was it all an act?
Reasons to Question AKA- Jane Roe
As pro-lifers were quick to point out, there are good reasons to be suspicious about the accuracy or fairness of the documentary. To begin with, the filmmaker behind it is hardly unbiased. Nick Sweeny’s other film credits include such illuminating films as The Sex Robots are Coming and Transgender Kids Camp. Clearly, Sweeny has skin in the game when it comes to the abortion wars.
On the other hand, there’s no denying the fact that McCorvey does say some troubling things in the documentary. Speaking about her relationship with the pro-life movement, for instance, McCorvey says at one point, “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.”
However, as pro-life author Jonathon van Maren notes, this admission, and a handful of other troubling quotes, are presented by Sweeny out of context, and in some cases are elicited through clearly leading questions. Furthermore, Sweeny’s “smoking gun” showing that the pro-life movement “paid” McCorvey to convert – 990s showing that she and her ministry received some $450,000 in gifts over the years – is laughable. McCorvey worked for two and a half decades in the pro-life movement. Like any spokesperson for any cause, she was paid for her speeches and other work. Viewed as a lump sum, the total dollar amount seems shocking; considered as payment for many years of work, it’s a non-event.
Indeed, those who knew McCorvey know that she often had money troubles, and she lived for stints of time with various of her pro-life friends in order to get by. Interestingly, Fr. Frank Pavone, one of McCorvey’s closest confidantes, has revealed that McCorvey expressed her pleasure that she was getting paid to participate in AKA Jane Roe.
“I’m interviewing with a company out of New York via Australia,” McCorvey texted him in May 2016 about the film. "I’m very happy doing it. I charged of course so I’ll have some bucks at the end, so happy 'bout that.”
The fact is, if McCorvey’s conversion were fake, it would amount to one of the most elaborate, sustained, and devious fakes of all time. McCorvey converted to the pro-life cause in 1995, after meeting evangelical preacher Flip Benham, at the time the national director of the pro-life group Operation Rescue. She was subsequently baptized into the Christian faith on Aug. 8, 1995, and then received into the Catholic Church by Father Edward Robinson and Father Pavone in 1998.
In the years following her conversion, she published a book about her change of heart – Won by Love – spoke at numerous pro-life events, joined an effort to overturn Roe v. Wade, and shot various pro-life movies and commercials (including this famous ad in which she called her role in the Roe v. Wade decision the “biggest mistake of my life.” On one occasion, she was even arrested, when she protested the Senate confirmation hearings for pro-abortion Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
Long-time pro-life leader Monica Miller recently asked:
“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.”
McCorvey’s Friends Tell a Different Story
However, perhaps the best reason to question the film’s narrative is the testimony of the many pro-life leaders who spend endless hours with her, considered her a close friend, and who were in regular contact with her up to – and, indeed, on – the day she died.
Many of these friends openly acknowledge that McCorvey was a complex character and did not fit the model of a stereotypical pro-lifer. This is hardly surprising, they note, pointing to the enormous amount of pain in her life. The details of McCorvey’s early life read like a tragedy: born to an alcoholic mother, she experienced same-sex attraction early, was abandoned by her father at 13, became a drug addict (and dealer) by her mid-teens, was sent to reform school, after which she was sexually abused by a relative, married at 16 to an abusive man, and shortly thereafter lost custody of her first child.
It was when McCorvey became pregnant with her third child in her early 20s, in 1969, that she tried to get an abortion. What many people don’t know about McCorvey is that she never actually had an abortion. Instead, she was put in touch with a pair of pro-abortion lawyers, who saw in her the perfect test case to challenge Roe v. Wade. And that is how she became Jane Roe. But by the time the case made its way through the legal system, McCorvey had already given birth and placed her child up for adoption. After Roe v. Wade, McCorvey worked for a time in an abortion clinic and became a public activist for abortion. However, she was keenly aware that her fellow abortion activists viewed her with suspicion, and when she met Christian pastor Flip Benham at a book signing, she was ripe for a change.
In the days since AKA Jane Roe was announced and then released, various pro-life leaders, many of whom spent countless hours with McCorvey, and with whom she even lived at various times, have reminisced fondly about the woman they knew. And regardless of any complexities of her feelings captured in the documentary, they strenuously dispute the notion that her pro-life conversion or activism was just an “act.”
One especially telling story comes from former Planned Parenthood clinic director Abby Johnson. Johnson recently recounted how, just days before McCorvey’s death, Johnson’s phone rang. It was McCorvey. Johnson had never spoken to her before. But she recounted how Norma told her [Johnson] that she needed to speak with someone “who had a ‘big number’ and would understand what she needed to ask me.” The “big number” she was referring to is the number of aborted babies that each woman was responsible for – Johnson, as former director of an abortion facility, and Norma as the plaintiff in Roe v. Wade.
“Her many years as a dedicated pro-life advocate was not a lie,” wrote Johnson about her conversation with McCorvey. “Her tearful conversation (which I will keep private) with me days before her death was not a lie. The hours she spent praying in front of abortion facilities was not a lie. Her life with Christ was not a lie. THE ABORTION INDUSTRY IS A LIE. They lied about and manipulated her so many years ago, they did it right before her death, and they are even doing it after her death. They are the lie.”
Fr. Frank Pavone, who had welcomed McCorvey into the Catholic Church in 1998, responded to AKA Jane Roe, telling Catholic News Agency: “I can even see her being emotionally cornered to get those words out of her mouth, but the things that I saw in 22 years with her— the thousands and thousands of conversations that we had — that was real…Her conversion was very, very sincere, and she paid a price for it.”
Operation Rescue president Troy Newman also fondly recalled years of friendship with McCorvey.
“I knew Norma well, and at one time, she lived with my family in the Wichita, Kansas area for several months,” he said. “I knew her to be a straightforward, down-to-earth woman who was witty and kind. She loved children and adored my own five children.”
“There is no way her Christian faith or her pro-life beliefs were false. The makers of AKA Jane Roe should be ashamed that they took advantage of Norma in the vulnerable last days of her life, then released their spurious movie after she passed away when she could not defend herself.”
Many more of Norma’s friends have spoken up in recent days – far more than I can include in this article. They are all agreed in their testimony, and dismayed that a handful of out-of-context quotes, elicited from an ailing woman, are being used to wipe out her years of pro-life work. Unsurprisingly, with one exception – Flip Benham – those pro-life people who knew Norma best were not interviewed in the documentary to provide their perspective.
McCorvey’s Last Days and Pro-Life Legacy
Those who were at the bedside of the dying McCorvey, the people she called and the people she turned to for support, were her friends in the pro-life movement – the people who had loved her, laughed with her, and worked alongside her for years.
Karen Garnett, one of McCorvey’s longest and closest friends – they described their friendship as a ‘sisterhood’ – recently recalled the final day of Norma’s life.
“I received a phone call at 9:58 on Saturday morning, February 17 that Norma was dying and they didn’t know how much more time she had,” Garnett remembered. “I asked if I could tell her one more time that I and everyone loved her, and the phone was put to her ear so I could. With very labored breathing, she barely whispered: ‘Love you too, honey.’”
In AKA Jane Roe, Sweeny tried to paint a sordid tale of a movement exploiting a woman, plying her with money to play a part for political gain. In reality, it was he who was exploiting her: releasing an ambiguous documentary designed to undermine her pro-life legacy, after her death, when she is unable to defend herself or clarify her words. Meanwhile, the uniform and detailed testimony of those who were closest to McCorvey tells a radically different story: that of a woman tormented by guilt over her role in Roe v. Wade, and who found help, acceptance, and unconditional love among the many pro-life individuals she called friends, and in her faith in Jesus Christ. This is Norma’s true legacy. And nothing in AKA Jane Roe can erase that.
Father Shenan J. Boquet is president of Human Life International (HLI).
Editor's Note: This piece was originally published on Human Life International.