Norma McCorvey has a deathbed confession to make.
The Jane Roe of Roe v. Wade, who has become a mouthpiece for the right wing, is ready to tell the world that her decades-long stint as the shiniest trophy of the anti-abortion movement was, in fact, a sham. She took their money ― nearly half a million dollars ― listened to their explicit coaching, and said what she needed to say. But privately, she always believed that “if a young woman wants to have an abortion, fine. That’s no skin off my ass. You know, that’s why they call it choice. It’s your choice.”
“So it was all an act?” asks the filmmaker, off-camera.
“Yeah,” says McCorvey, wryly. “I did it well, too. I am a good actress. Of course, I’m not acting now.”
The “now” she is referencing is in fact 2017, the year McCorvey died. On Friday, audiences can see her confession in the new documentary “AKA Jane Roe” on FX. The explosive film, which runs a tight hour and 15 minutes, tells a tragic story about a woman who became the poster girl for two sides of an ongoing political debate.
“Roe v. Wade could not be more relevant than it is today,” director Nick Sweeney told HuffPost. “And for that reason, it’s more important than ever to understand the person at the center of it.”
When McCorvey was just 22 and pregnant, she signed on to become the plaintiff known as “Jane Roe” after being denied a legal abortion in her home state of Texas. The case, Roe v. Wade, went all the way up to the Supreme Court in 1973, and the ruling legalized abortion across all 50 states. After making her identity public in the 1980s, McCorvey spent years working in an abortion clinic, and then the following two decades as a born-again Christian anti-abortion crusader. This narrative of sin and subsequent saving paid dividends for the Christian right for years.
“AKA Jane Roe” tells, for perhaps the first time, McCorvey’s life story in her own words, in all of its complex, at times unsympathetic, glory. Much of her life is not common knowledge: She grew up in a poor family with difficult dynamics. As a young woman, she was pregnant three times, though she never had an abortion. Her mother cared for her first child, Missy, and McCorvey maintained a relationship with Missy until she died. For most of McCorvey’s life — until she became a born-again Christian in the mid-1990s and renounced her sexuality — she was a lesbian, with a long-term partner named Connie.
The film features interviews with McCorvey alongside attorney Gloria Allred; former anti-abortion activist Rev. Rob Schenck, who confirmed that his group, Operation Rescue, paid McCorvey; abortion rights activist and founder of the Routh Street Women’s Clinic Charlotte Taft; and Flip Benham, an anti-abortion activist and national leader of Operation Saving America. The film also has wider implications, about what it means for movements to hinge so much on individual spokespeople, and how easily exploitation can occur.
HuffPost spoke with Sweeney about McCorvey’s many contradictions, and what her story can tell us about the national debate over abortion rights that rages on today.
“People wanted Norma McCorvey to fit this mold of who they thought Jane Roe should be,” Sweeney said. “Norma was Norma.”
HuffPost: Can you tell me a little bit about how the film originated?
Nick Sweeney: Like many people, I was aware of this big famous case that kicked off this decades-long, divisive debate. But I admit to being very naive about the fact that there was this fascinating person at the center of it: Norma McCorvey. I was really drawn to her complexity. She represented so many contradictions and one of them, for example, is that she is the reason why American women have the right to legal abortion, and yet she never had an abortion herself. She had been pregnant three times and yet she lived most of her life as an out and proud lesbian ― until the mid-’90s when she disavowed her sexuality. I wanted to unpack the mysteries around this person.
Why do you think it was so important to Norma to get her story out there even if she wouldn’t be around to witness the impact?
When I first reached out to Norma [in early 2016], I didn’t realize that her health wasn’t great. I think Norma was extremely aware that she was running out of time, and that this was one of the last opportunities to tell her story in her own words. I think she knew that if she didn’t tell her story, somebody else was going to, and by doing this and by coming clean about everything, she got to define the terms of her own legacy.
What was it like to spend time with her in the last years of her life? The footage feels quite intimate.
Often we were just hanging out. We would just drive around dusty roads in Texas and she would make me stop and pick magnolias, cause she liked having magnolias for her room. She didn’t want to have a big documentary crew following her. She often only would allow me to be there on my own with one camera. One of the positives that came out of this is that I think that there’s a real honesty to the footage. I think she felt like she could go off script, and a lot of her life, she was expected to stay on script.
Throughout her life, people wanted Norma McCorvey to fit this mold of who they thought Jane Roe should be. Norma was Norma. She lived this incredibly difficult life and yet she had an amazing sense of humor. I think that really comes through in the film. She just had this quiet, funny, quirky way of expressing herself that I don’t think was always appreciated. That was one of her many charms.
What are some of the major misconceptions that the general public has about Norma McCorvey?
There’s a drive to reduce somebody like Jane Roe into a trophy or an emblem, somebody that immediately fits within what people want that figure to be. And in doing that, we risk ignoring the complexity of Norma, ignoring who she really was and her contradictions and her complexities, which we all have. So I think the thing that I would love for people to take away from “AKA Jane Roe” is that she was a real person. She wasn’t this kind of, as Rev. Rob Schenck says, “cartoon cardboard cutout.” She was a real person with her own views.
Let’s get into those views. At one point in the film, Norma says, referring to Flip Benham and his ilk, “They’re assholes. They all act like God sent them to preach the gospel.” But, whether she truly agreed with them or not, she did help those “assholes” for many years. How do you think she squared that with herself?
I asked Norma, “Did they use you as a trophy?” And she says, “Well, it was a mutual thing. I took their money. They put me up front and they told me what to say and that’s what I’d say.” Well, Rev. Schenck, the evangelical minister who was a key organizer of [anti-abortion group] Operation Rescue in that era, acknowledges a lot. He says, “The jig is up. What we did with Norma was highly unethical.” So it was certainly transactional according to the people who were there.
One thing that I think is interesting is that towards the end of the film, when Norma is watching the election in 2016, she comments early in the night, “Roe isn’t going anywhere. They can try, but it’s not happening baby.” And I think that she felt that genuinely Roe was not going anywhere. And that was her feeling for a long time. That it wasn’t going anywhere. And so I think that perhaps that gives some insight into what Norma was thinking about her effect on the abortion debate.
What was it like to be in the room with Gloria Allred and Charlotte Taft and Rob Schenck when they watched back the tape of Norma’s big confession?
I’ll go back even a little bit earlier. To be in the room when Norma said these things was astonishing. I did not expect the documentary to go in the direction that it did when I first set out to make it. So when we then showed the tape to the key organizers from that era, I did not expect that these would be the reactions that they had. As a filmmaker you try not to kind of get swept away in the emotion of a moment, but it was hard to contain my surprise and bewilderment that these people were coming clean about things like [paying McCorvey to be a mouthpiece for the anti-abortion movement], because there’s a lot at stake.
Rob Schenck in particular is a very interesting figure because he remains an evangelical minister and he believes very strongly in the power of confession. He believes that through confession you retain a sense of power and have a feeling of catharsis. And I think that certainly for him responding to what Norma said gave him that feeling.
Why do you think Norma waited for so long to express her true views on abortion?
When I first approached Norma she was skeptical about who I was. She would ask me questions at the beginning like, “What congregation do you go to?” and “What organization are you approaching me on behalf of?” And the answer to both is “none.” I think she was very grateful as soon as she found out that I’m somebody who was uninvolved in the abortion debate. I think that was the reason why she wanted to film. She simply wanted her to be herself and not feel the boundaries or expectations of people who wanted Jane Roe to be a particular thing, a trophy or an emblem.
One of the tragic subplots of the film is Norma’s long partnership with her girlfriend Connie. Why was it important to you to include that story?
Connie is a woman of few words but the ones she does say in the film are so incredibly powerful. The expression on her face when Norma is getting baptized in the swimming pool. I mean, it’s heartbreaking to see, she looks shell shocked and scared, and soon after in the film Flip [Benham] says, you know, when Norma turned to Jesus, “We told her there had to be some lifestyle changes.” Norma had to end her relationship with Connie and declare that she was no longer a lesbian.
I think what’s really heartbreaking is that Connie was one of the few people in Norma’s life who didn’t want anything from her ― except maybe love. She wasn’t standing to benefit from being associated with Jane Roe. She just loved Norma. And I think it makes the way their story ended up even more heartbreaking when you see Connie crying and then Norma at the end saying, “I loved her with all my heart,” when a decade or so before she was disavowing her sexuality in TV appearances.
I’m gay myself and I have the privilege of being able to live openly and not feel shame about that. And I think that it’s very heartbreaking for me and for an audience to see the way that the story of Norma and Connie unfolded.
What do you think this story reveals about the longstanding national debate over abortion? What is the cost of using individuals as stand-ins for an entire movement?
I was so fascinated by what it is like to be a woman in the public eye who is tethered to this divisive issue. What does it feel like to be in the center of that? And you know, I think that Norma at different points in her life felt used and overlooked, and she felt that she hadn’t been looked after or appreciated. And you know, I think that all of this was very difficult for her, perhaps traumatic. She had a very difficult path to walk throughout her life. She experienced a number of very traumatic things and, and then piled on top of that, being this woman who was put into an impossible situation where she was pregnant with a child that she felt she couldn’t look after. And then she was thrust into the middle of this huge debate, this huge issue. I can’t imagine that the pressure and the scrutiny of being Jane Roe could [have been] anything but very oppressive.
What are the takeaways for activists and for the public from Norma McCorvey’s story?
It’s so important to remember that at the center of a huge famous case like Roe v. Wade, there is an individual with a real story and real emotions and contradictions and complexity. Norma did fit the bill for what the lawyers in Roe v. Wade were looking for. I think it’s just important to remember that this is just a human, and simply show who she was, unconstrained by the expectations of all sides of this debate. Norma was thrashing against those expectations her whole life. The things that she reveals in this film were certainly not the first time she’s subverted everybody’s expectations of her.
Is there anything else that you hope audiences watching this film leave with?
It’s rare you get a chance to tell a story about somebody as complex and Norma. And even as contradictory as Norma McCorvey was, we don’t let our icons be complicated. We want people to fit neatly into boxes. Norma is not an easy person to understand or to digest all of the things that happened to her and that she was responsible for. And I’m just really grateful that I had the opportunity to tell her story. There’s a tendency to ignore the complexity of public figures, particularly women.
Well, I certainly felt like I got to know Norma McCovey as a real, whole woman by watching this film.
It means a great deal to me that you watched it and engaged with it thoroughly. You know, a younger generation kind of takes for granted things like what Roe v. Wade means, or even what it’s like to live openly as a queer person. I hope younger audiences can see this story and understand how different things once were.
I think it also makes clear the stakes, given the moment that this film is coming out in. We are in an election year in a reality in which a lot of the protections that Roe v. Wade initially guaranteed have been gutted at the state level. The stakes are as high now as they were in the 1970s.
I think Roe v. Wade could not be more relevant than it is today. And for that reason, it’s more important than ever to understand the person at the center of it.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.