Anti-abor­tion switch was act, ‘Jane Roe’ says in film

Plain­tiff’s ‘deathbed con­fes­sion’ tells of be­ing paid, coached

Orlando Sentinel - - Nation & World - By Jes­sica Gresko

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 a--. 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. 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, pic­tureper­fect 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 an­tiabor­tion 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,” he says.

As the star of “AKA Jane Roe,” McCor­vey 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.

J. SCOTT APPLEWHITE/AP

Norma McCor­vey, left, aka Jane Roe in 1973’s Roe v. Wade, and at­tor­ney Glo­ria Allred hold hands at the U.S. Supreme Court in 1989 af­ter lis­ten­ing to ar­gu­ments in an abor­tion case.

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