Jane Roe’s Deathbed Confession: Anti-Abortion Conversion ‘All an Act’ Paid for by the Christian Right
The new FX documentary “AKA Jane Roe,” out May 22, contains a shocking revelation: Roe (of “Roe v. Wade” fame) played the part of an anti-abortion crusader in exchange for money.
In its final 20 minutes, the documentary film AKA Jane Roe delivers quite the blow to conservatives who have weaponized the story of Jane Roe herself—real name, Norma McCorvey—to argue that people with uteruses should have to carry any and all pregnancies to term.
McCorvey, who died in 2017, became Jane Roe when, as a young homeless woman, she was unable to get a legal or safe abortion in the state of Texas. Her willingness to lend her experience to the legal case for abortion led to the passing of Roe v. Wade in 1973, which legalized abortions in all 50 states (though red states do all they can to get around this; recently, several have even used the COVID-19 pandemic to make abortions functionally impossible to procure). But conservatives had a field day in the mid '90s when the assertive, media-savvy pro-choice advocate and activist McCorvey became an anti-abortion born-again ex-gay Christian with the help of leaders of the evangelical Christian right, Reverend Flip Benham (of the infamous Operation Rescue) and Reverend Rob Schenck. A conservative film, Roe v. Wade, starring Jon Voight and Stacey Dash, will dramatize McCorvey’s “conversion.”
But those filmmakers, and the rest of the pro-life evangelical community, have another curveball coming. In the final third of director Nick Sweeney’s 79-minute documentary, featuring many end-of-life reflections from McCorvey—who grew up queer, poor, and was sexually abused by a family member her mother sent her to live with after leaving reform school—the former Jane Roe admits that her later turn to the anti-abortion camp as a born-again Christian was “all an act.”
“This is my deathbed confession,” she chuckles, sitting in a chair in her nursing home room, on oxygen. Sweeney asks McCorvey, “Did [the evangelicals] use you as a trophy?” “Of course,” she replies. “I was the Big Fish.” “Do you think you would say that you used them?” Sweeney responds. “Well,” says McCorvey, “I think it was a mutual thing. I took their money and they took me out in front of the cameras and told me what to say. That’s what I’d say.” She even gives an example of her scripted anti-abortion lines. “I’m a good actress,” she points out. “Of course, I’m not acting now.”
Sweeney shows the video of McCorvey’s confession to her friends and acquaintances on the pro-abortion and anti-abortion sides, including pro-choice activist Charlotte Taft who, on the verge of tears, says, “That just really hurts because it’s big stakes. It’s just really big stakes.”
Reverend Schenck, the much more reasonable of the two evangelical leaders featured in the film, also watches the confession and is taken aback. But he’s not surprised, and easily corroborates, saying, “I had never heard her say anything like this… But I knew what we were doing. 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.” Reverend Schenck admits that McCorvey was “a target,” a “needy” person in need of love and protection, and that “as clergy,” people like Schenck and Benham were “used to those personalities” and thus easily able to exploit her weaknesses. He also confirms that she was “coached on what to say” in her anti-abortion speeches. Benham denies McCorvey was paid; Schenck insists she was, saying that “at a few points, she was actually on the payroll, as it were.” AKA Jane Roe finds documents disclosing at least $456,911 in “benevolent gifts” from the anti-abortion movement to McCorvey.
Reverend Benham then blurts out, “Yeah, but she chose to be used. That’s called work. That’s what you’re paid to be doing!” Schenck’s thinking is quite different: “For Christians like me, there is no more important or authoritative voice than Jesus,” he explains. “And he said, ‘What does it profit in the end if he should gain the whole world and lose his soul?’ When you do what we did to Norma, you lose your soul.”
In fact, Reverend Schenck underlines his own conversion, which took place in the last decade: “I still identify as an evangelical, but I like to think of myself as lovingly critical of my community. I guess in some ways I’d like to use whatever years I have remaining to undo the damage that I did and that many movement leaders did on the pro-life side. I used to think that Roe v. Wade would never be overturned. I think Roe v. Wade could be overturned now. And I think the result of that would be chaos and pain. And to impose that kind of crisis on a woman is unthinkable.”
Another crisis the evangelicals imposed was that of their homophobic teachings. To be born-again, McCorvey was required to stop having a romantic relationship with her long-time girlfriend—and, for a while, her only family—Connie. According to interviews, this confused and hurt Connie, though she stayed in the relationship for a decade after McCorvey’s conversion. Eventually, in 2004, Connie had a stroke; McCorvey moved out after a few years. Connie died two years before McCorvey, in 2015. McCorvey always kept mementos from their romance, including jewelry Connie gave her, and expresses profound sadness over Connie’s death in the documentary. Unfortunately, AKA Jane Roe never explains why, if McCorvey’s born-again anti-abortion stance was all for the money, she would’ve ended her romantic relationship with Connie while continuing their domestic one. And if, on the contrary, the relationship wasn’t really over, then what could explain Connie’s anguished interviews—surely, the act of a conservatory-trained actor if they, too, were a ruse?
AKA Jane Roe does succeed at painting a complex portrait of McCorvey, who was punished for being attracted to women from the time she was ten years old and ran away with a girlfriend. (After being caught at a hotel, where the two conned their way to a room, police asked the very young McCorvey if she had committed sodomy, and after clarifying what they meant by that, she said yes.) Throughout the documentary, McCorvey closely resembles her pre-'90s self, wisecracking and uninhibited. “I wonder how many abortions Donald Trump is responsible for,” she offers. “I’m sure he’s lost count, if he can count that high.” Her sardonic manner also comes with serious wisdom: “If a young woman wants to have an abortion—fine,” she says, coloring in the nursing home. “That’s no skin off my ass. You know, that’s why they call it ‘choice.’ It’s your choice.”