WASHINGTON – Norma McCorvey loved the limelight. Better known as “Jane Roe,” her story was at the center of the 1973 Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade that legalized abortion nationwide. At first she was an abortion rights advocate, but, in a twist, she became a born-again Christian in 1995 and switched sides.
Now, three years after her death of heart failure at age 69, she's making headlines again. In a documentary being released Friday, McCorvey says she was paid to speak out against abortion.
“This is my deathbed confession,” she says, chuckling as she breathes with the aid of oxygen during filming at a nursing home where she lived in Katy, Texas.
“I took their money and they put me out in front of the cameras and told me what to say," she says in “AKA Jane Roe,” which premieres Friday on FX.
Asked whether it was an “all an act,” she responds: “Yeah.”
“I did it well, too. I am a good actress. Of course, I’m not acting now,” she says in the documentary, which was filmed in 2016 and 2017.
As for her feelings on abortion, McCorvey says: “If a young woman wants to have an abortion, fine. You know, it's no skin off my ass. You know that's why they call it choice. It's your choice.”
Filmmaker Nick Sweeney said the documentary condensed hundreds of hours of film he shot over the last year of McCorvey's life and that he hoped it gave her the chance to tell her own complex story.
McCorvey’s true feelings about abortion have always been nuanced, said Joshua Prager, who spent eight years working on a book about McCorvey due out next year. In a telephone interview, he said McCorvey made her living giving speeches and writing books on both sides of the abortion debate and was coached by both sides. She had conflicted feelings about each, he said, but was consistent throughout her life in one thing: supporting abortion through the first trimester.
Prager, who has not seen the new documentary, said he believes that if leaders of the abortion rights movement had embraced McCorvey, “I don’t think there’s any chance that she would have switched sides.”
But, he said, she was desperate for acceptance and “liked being in front of the camera.”
“I like attention," she acknowledged in the new documentary.
If the film confirms anything, it is that McCorvey was complicated. She grew up poor and was sexually abused by a relative. She was a lesbian. At 22, she was unemployed and living in Texas when she became pregnant with her third child.
McCorvey wanted an abortion, but it was illegal in Texas and most states. That led her to become the anonymous plaintiff in Roe v. Wade. She gave birth to her third child, whom she put up for adoption, before the Supreme Court ruled in her case.
McCorvey has had other bombshell moments before. Initially she said that the pregnancy she wanted to end was the result of rape. Later, she said it was not.
That admission, and the fact McCorvey was uneducated and not, as she tells it “a demure, quiet, picture-perfect white-gloved lady,” meant the abortion rights movement kept her at arm's length. That, she says, “really set me on fire.”
But if one side of the abortion debate didn't embrace her, the other did. Two leaders of the anti-abortion movement, Flip Benham and Robert Schenck, are interviewed in the documentary.
Schenck, an evangelical minister who has since broken with the religious right and now supports Roe v. Wade, confirms that McCorvey was coached on what to say and paid.
“Money was a constant source of tension. Norma would complain that she wasn’t getting enough money. Her complaints were met with checks,” Schenck says, adding: “There was some worry that if Norma wasn't paid sufficiently, that she would go back to the other side.”
He also expresses some misgivings of his own, acknowledging he wondered of McCorvey: “Is she playing us?”
"What I didn't have the guts to say was: ‘Because I know damn well we’re playing her.' What we did with Norma was highly unethical. The jig is up," he says.
McCorvey, for her part, says both parties used the other.
As the star of “AKA Jane Roe,” she is wry, sometimes crass and occasionally emotional. On election night in 2016, viewers see her hoping that Hillary Clinton will win.
“I wish I knew how many abortions Donald Trump was responsible for. I'm sure he's lost count," she says. "You know, if he can count that high.”
McCorvey didn’t live to see Trump's two Supreme Court nominees join the high court, shifting it right and worrying abortion rights supporters that the court could ultimately overturn Roe. Earlier this year, the justices heard arguments in one case involving abortion that could reveal how willing they are to do so. A decision is expected by early summer.
Prager, her biographer, says McCorvey told him she thought Trump would ultimately get his way and Roe would be overturned.
She offers a different assessment in the film: “No, Roe isn't going anywhere," she says. "No. It's not going to be tampered with. They can try but it's not happening, baby.”