How Nick Sweeney Got Jane Roe’s Shocking Deathbed Confession
In the FX documentary “AKA Jane Roe,” filmmaker Nick Sweeney stumbled upon a major revelation: Roe (of Roe v. Wade) was bribed into being anti-abortion by the Christian right.
Norma McCorvey never knew who to trust. She was declared a ward of the state at 10. Then her father walked out, leaving her in the hands of an alcoholic mother and first cousin once removed, who she said raped her numerous times. By 16, she was married to Woody McCorvey. When he allegedly began abusing her, she left, giving birth to their daughter a year later. Norma drank to numb the pain, but it got so bad that her mom tricked her into signing adoption papers. She got pregnant a third time at 21, and, with little money and nowhere to turn, was passed on to a pair of attorneys who sought to challenge the country’s anti-abortion laws. The eventual Supreme Court case, Roe v. Wade, resulted in a landmark decision protecting a woman’s right to choose.
The “Jane Roe” of Roe v. Wade was none other than McCorvey. She never did have an abortion, giving birth—and putting the child up for adoption—while the case was still being argued. Nonetheless, she became the poster child for the pro-choice movement. That all changed in 1995, when McCorvey was approached by Flip Benham, an evangelical minister and head of the notorious anti-abortion group Operation Rescue. She became born again, separating from her longtime female partner, Connie; renounced her pro-choice past, maintaining she was used by the pro-choice crowd; and transformed into a fiery anti-abortion activist.
“It was all an act,” she confessed in a new documentary film.
AKA Jane Roe, a new documentary premiering May 22 on FX, contains what McCorvey called her “deathbed confession”: that the anti-abortion Christian right paid her large sums of money (at least $456,911, according to documents uncovered in the film) to play the part of anti-abortion crusader, forcing her to read from scripts they prepared, end her lesbian relationship, and preach their gospel. Her account is corroborated by both Rev. Flip Benham and Rev. Rob Schenck, who ran Operation Rescue and managed McCorvey’s public appearances.
The British filmmaker Nick Sweeney reached out to McCorvey in April 2016. They met and began filming together in May until she passed away the following February. “As soon as we met, we got along really well. We weren’t even filming a lot of the time. We’d drive around Katy, Texas, and she’d have me stop the car and pick magnolias for her,” Sweeney remembers.
“She was really fun to be around,” he continues. “She’d lived an incredibly difficult life filled with really horrible traumatic events, and yet she had a gallows humor and wry charm. I enjoyed hanging out with her, and I do miss her a lot.”
The Daily Beast spoke to Sweeney about the making of his eye-opening doc AKA Jane Roe and how he landed the scoop of a lifetime.
For starters, how did you come into contact with—and earn the trust of—Norma McCorvey?
I’ll give you a little bit of background into why I wanted to make it. So, I had been aware of the case Roe v. Wade. I’m actually a law graduate, and had always been aware that there was this important case that’s kicked off a decades-long quite divisive debate, but I didn’t really know much or anything about the woman at the center of it, Norma McCorvey. The moment I researched and found out about her, it left my head spinning, because the known details in her life were so fascinating, full of twists and contradictions and 180-degree pivots. I was really interested in finding out who she was.
I initially made contact with her in early 2016, just before the election, to suss out whether she would be willing to make a documentary, and she was really suspicious and skeptical. She became more curious about who I was, and was asking me what congregation I worshipped at, and what organization I was with. I didn’t have an answer for her, because the answer was “none” for both.
You had no dog in the fight.
As soon as she became aware that I was uninvolved in the abortion debate, she was willing to meet up and talk with me. So I went down and we hung out a lot in Katy, Texas, where she was living. She was very open, and very different from what I expected her to be. I’d watched a lot of TV appearances and videos of her in the decades prior where she felt very on-script. With me, she was not like that. She felt very off-script. Also, I am gay myself, and not that these two things are related at all, but she did often say that I reminded her of her girlfriend Connie. In terms of gaining her trust, I think she was very relieved to be speaking to someone who was not involved in the debate and wasn’t from an organization. Throughout her life, I think people wanted Norma to meet their expectations of what Jane Roe was or should be, but she just wanted to be herself and tell her story.
Was she inspired to tell her story because of the rise of Trump? [In the film, McCorvey says, “I wonder how many abortions Donald Trump is responsible for. I’m sure he’s lost count, if he can count that high.]
She gives a pretty unvarnished line when she’s talking about Trump on the night of the election, and one of the things that she also says that night is that Roe isn’t going anywhere. They can try but it’s not happening. And that’s her take on it. But as far as what motivated her [to participate in the film], and I wasn’t aware of this when I first approached her, but her health was in decline, and I think she was very aware that she didn’t have a lot of time left, and was running out of time to set her story straight and to set the terms of her legacy in her own words. She felt like she had nothing to gain and nothing to lose at that point, and that’s why she wanted to do the documentary and say the things she did when she did. I think it had less to do with the election and more to do with her running out of time.
Did you know she’d come forward with this big revelation, or did that come as a shock to you during filming?
I had absolutely no idea of the direction the film would go in. All I knew about her is what was known publicly, which was that she was at the center of this case that was extremely well-known, and that she was thrust into the center of this divisive debate, and in the mid-‘90s she got baptized in a swimming pool on national TV by the Reverend Flip Benham, and that she had lived as an out-and-proud lesbian with her partner Connie, who we see in the film, and all of a sudden disavowed her sexuality. In all honesty, the things that she revealed to me I was astonished by. I was shocked and bewildered. The feeling I felt in the moment she was revealing things is very similar, I think, to what an audience will feel while watching the film. I still am surprised.
What do you think it says about the way the Christian right anti-abortion movement weaponized her? There’s a quote in the film by Rev. Schenck that really stuck with me: “When you do what we did to Norma, you lose your soul.”
I think nobody gives a more succinct reaction to all of this than Rev. Schenck, who is an evangelical minister and was one of the leaders of Operation Rescue. He says, when confronted with what Norma confesses, “What we did with Norma was highly unethical. The jig is up.” It was another one of those moments where I was so shocked that I was seeing this. In terms of what it makes me think, I think there is a real temptation with someone like Jane Roe to reduce her to an emblem or a trophy—to try to mold her to someone that suits any of the different elements of the abortion debate—and I think that’s what happened to Norma. There was an unwillingness to acknowledge her complexity and acknowledge who she really was, and instead treat her like a trophy or an emblem. I’m grateful she got to throw that off by coming clean in the film.
It reminds me a bit of Margaret Sanger, the way those who were against reproductive rights co-opted her story and used her late-in-life turn to pour cold water on everything that came before it.
One really interesting line that Norma gives is, I ask, “Did they ever use you as a trophy?” and she says “Well, it was a mutual thing.” I think she saw it as mutual—I took their money, they put me out front, told me what to say, and that’s what I said. Rob Schenck, one of the leaders of Operation Rescue, he says this line, “There were so many people writing checks to Norma, I will never know how much she got. But we were worried that if we didn’t pay her she’d go back to the other side.” I guess I was just very surprised that Norma was saying it, and that Rob backed her up. There was an element of survival to Norma throughout her whole life. She endured such traumatic things when she was young. One of my favorite lines that she gives is where she says, “I’m just lookin’ out for Norma’s salvation and Norma’s ass.”
How did you uncover evidence that these anti-abortion organizations had paid off Norma to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars?
Norma started a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that absorbed all the various different “fees” she received throughout that era. Rob Schenck uses the term “benevolent gifts,” and there were various different ways that she was receiving money—things like book deals, “benevolent gifts,” or speaking fees. It was a very elaborate and creative way that this was all done. Rob was one of the big organizers of Norma’s public events, and one of the things he admits to is he says Norma was “coached” because they knew she wasn’t rock-solid on the “rights of the unborn child,” which is consistent with things Norma is saying later on, when she says, “If a young woman wants to have an abortion, fine. It’s no skin off my ass.”
And you manage to track down receipts for $456,911 in “benevolent gifts” to Norma, but like Rob says, that’s probably just the tip of the iceberg since she was receiving so many different forms of payment from anti-abortion groups.
That’s what he’s suggesting—that there were so many different groups that were writing checks to Norma that there’s no way of even knowing just how much it was. I think that Rob, as a religious leader, believes that there’s an incredible power in confession—that it can be cathartic—and I know for him, taking part in the film and corroborating these things was a cathartic experience. I think it helped him process what he’d been involved in.
I have to ask: Was Norma paid to participate in the documentary?
Norma wasn’t paid to participate in the documentary. She did provide us with a huge amount of personal photos and family photos, and we licensed those things.
I’m sure those on the right are going to question your political motives.
Right. I think that Norma, with the documentary, just wanted to set the record straight and not only tell who she was, but tell her story before somebody else did. If she didn’t tell her story, somebody else was going to. And I was very lucky, as a filmmaker, to meet someone and make a film with someone as complex or contradictory as Norma McCorvey. I miss her a lot. I’m gay myself, and that was one of the things that drew me to Norma’s story initially. I was always very curious that this woman, Norma McCorvey, lived as an out-and-proud lesbian for many decades, and then all of a sudden she was disavowing her sexuality. I was curious about how and why. One of the saddest stories of the film is the story of Norma and Connie, Norma’s lover. In these scenes where [Norma] is getting baptized in the swimming pool, you just see this look of heartbreak and fear written on Connie’s face. She looked shell-shocked.
It doesn’t seem like Norma’s born-again conversion was completely an act though, right? Because then how can you explain her estrangement from Connie?
I’ll give you two perspectives on that. In the film, as Norma becomes an anti-abortion figure, Flip says, “That means there’s going to be some lifestyle changes,” and Rev. Schenck says, “She had to end her lesbian relationship and declare that she was no longer a homosexual.” Rob Schenck says she would have been kicked out if she hadn’t done that. One of my favorite moments in the film is at the beginning where she’s giving a tour of her room and she says, “This is Jesus. He’s my boyfriend.” Even though it’s an unconventional way of saying it, she was religious and she was devoted to Jesus. I never doubted that aspect of it. Religion and spirituality have been a part of her life throughout; it wasn’t that she suddenly, in 1995, discovered faith for the very first time. It played a role in her early life. I never felt there was any disingenuousness around her beliefs, if that makes sense.
Have there been threats from those on the anti-abortion right? Or any attempts to suppress this film?
Um… no. No, there haven’t.
It was certainly kept under wraps. I didn’t know it was cooking until recently, and FX has been very cagey about when they’d allow journalists to reveal the big reveal.
It took an incredibly long time to make the film. I was filming with Norma for a bit under a year, and her story is just so complicated and filled with so many details that are hard for an audience to process in very quick succession that it took so long to make it. On top of that, we did follow-up interviews with key figures in her life, like Flip Benham and Gloria Allred, and then we were very determined to find actual archival materials. For example, when we go to Norma’s years in reform school, those photos are from the actual reform school from the years she was there. But yeah, I guess that’s part of why it took so long to be made and announced.
You’ve been sitting on quite the confession for three-plus years.
Yeah. Well, not quite sitting on. The editing process was very long. We were lucky to have a great editor, Mary Manhardt, who was one of the editors on Making a Murderer and many other films, and she’s very skilled at pacing and revealing. It’s an interesting question, and as a print journalist, I can see why [you’re asking]. But it’s different in documentary. It is a film I haven’t had the opportunity to talk about much publicly, and I’m pleased that Norma’s story is finally going to be out, because she’s just such a fascinating character and such an interesting reflection of the contradictions and complexities of the abortion debate.