The below story contains spoilers for the documentary AKA Jane Roe.
You’ve heard of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court case that made abortion legal in America. But you may be fuzzier on the details of who Jane Roe actually was. Her name was Norma McCorvey, and she played an undeniably defining role in abortion rights in the US. Her legacy is complicated, however, and over the course of her life, she became something of an antihero for both abortion rights groups and the anti-abortion movement.
McCorvey was 21, financially unstable, and pregnant for the third time in 1969 when she went looking for an abortion, according to her memoir. Instead, she got the names of two lawyers: Sarah Weddington and Linda Coffee. As a low-income woman who couldn't pay to get an abortion across state lines or do it illegally, McCorvey became the perfect plaintiff for their class action lawsuit against defendant Henry Wade — Dallas’s district attorney — which challenged Texas laws that criminalised abortion at the time. (Surprisingly to many, McCorvey never had the abortion. She carried that pregnancy to term, and gave the child up for adoption.)
"Roe" won the case, establishing abortion as a constitutional right. What came next is a major focus of the new FX documentary, AKA Jane Roe.
Though McCorvey worked at an abortion clinic in Dallas after the landmark case, in the 1990s, she became acquainted with Philip “Flip” Benham, an evangelical minister with ties to the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue. And soon enough, McCorvey was speaking out at anti-abortion rallies with Benham, saying she was a born-again Christian and “no longer” a lesbian, despite having had a long-term partner.
What spurred McCorvey's change of heart? She reportedly began to feel alienated and excluded from the abortion rights movement. “She was not the poster girl that would have been helpful,” Charlotte Taft, founder of the Routh Street Women’s Clinic in Dallas and an abortion rights activist, says in the documentary. Women like Gloria Steinem and Cybill Shepherd were leading rallies — not Norma McCorvey, who swore frequently, had dropped out of high school, and had robbed a gas station at 10 years old.
Benham lent McCorvey a sympathetic ear, and they formed what seemed at first to be an unlikely alliance. When she defected, anti-abortion activists celebrated, making her feel accepted. But the FX documentary, directed by Nick Sweeney, also reveals that McCorvey was paid large sums of money by the anti-abortion movement.
“I was the big fish,” McCorvey reflects in the documentary, which was shot shortly before she died in 2017. “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. That’s what I’d say... I did it well, too. I'm a good actress.” In fact, the documentary reports that McCorvey received at least $456,911 (£373,464) in gifts from anti-abortion groups.
In the documentary, which premieres on Friday 22nd May in the US, McCorvey makes what she calls her “deathbed confession,” saying: "It was all an act."
While talking to the filmmakers about her stance on abortion, she said, “If a young woman wants to have an abortion, fine. It’s no skin off my ass, that’s why they call it choice.”
The filmmakers showed McCorvey’s final statement on the divisive topic to people who knew her story, including Benham and Taft. “[Her original flip-flop on the issue] felt like such a betrayal,” Taft says in an interview. “The stakes were so high.”
McCorvey, for her part, said in the documentary, “I don’t really give a damn what people think. It’s my mind, people can’t tell me what to think… and they damn sure can’t tell me what to do.”
This isn't the first time we've been forced to grapple with the fallibility of people we admire, even those we see as heroes. The documentary portrays McCorvey as someone who intensely craved acceptance, someone who had lived a hard life, and who ultimately chose the security of money, even if that meant switching her allegiances on an issue as emotional and divisive as abortion rights. (Even now, the right to a legal abortion has been threatened by lawmakers in states such as Louisiana.) Ultimately, McCorvey was not a perfect hero — though she was understandably human.
And as Taft put it in the documentary. “The thing is, we want our stories to be tidy. And humans aren’t tidy.”
Editor's note: Vice Studios is a producer of the documentary and Refinery29 is part of Vice Media Group.