Norma McCorvey spent most of her life as a symbol. At age 22 — mired in poverty, a survivor of childhood abuse, and pregnant against her will for the third time — she became Jane Roe: the anonymous plaintiff at the center of Roe v. Wade, an emblem of the cruelty of America’s abortion bans, whose case eventually enshrined the right to choose into the constitution. To feminists, her pseudonym became synonymous with the battle for liberation and bodily autonomy. To the Christian right, it made her the new face of evil. But then, two decades after the ruling that made her a national figure, Jane Roe abruptly defected from the pro-choice side. In the welcoming waters of an anti-abortion extremist’s swimming pool, she was baptized and born again as an unlikely spokesperson for the movement, appearing on TV and at protests across the nation to denounce the killing of the unborn, cross necklace glinting at her throat. “The poster child has jumped off the poster,” the head of a local anti-abortion group gleefully proclaimed at the time.
It is hard to overstate the symbolic impact of born-again Jane Roe. Her supposed reversal of heart provided the ultimate, gripping moral parable, proof that even the most vocal pro-choice advocate could come to see that abortion is murder, and that those who believe in the right to choose are simply deluding themselves. To those who want to overturn Roe v. Wade, McCorvey was — and still is — held out as the archetype of the woman who regrets her terrible choice to terminate her pregnancy. (Never mind that McCorvey was never actually able to get an abortion.) It’s a tidy narrative that capitalizes on many fears at once, and to the anti-abortion movement, proves that women shouldn’t even be given the chance to have such regrets.
But everything around that narrative has been wrong. In a new documentary, AKA Jane Roe, premiering Friday on FX, which was filmed at her nursing home the year before her death, an ailing McCorvey comes out with a self-described shocking “deathbed confession”: The whole thing was a lie, one that the Evangelical movement apparently paid her hundreds of thousands of dollars to participate in. “I was the big fish” to them, she says dispassionately, breathing through an oxygen tube. “I think it was a mutual thing. I took their money, and they put me out in front of the cameras and told me what to say.” At the end of her life, she remains privately pro-choice: “If a woman wants to have an abortion, it’s no skin off my ass.”
To those who’ve seen McCorvey’s story weaponized by the right, who’ve walked through throngs of clinic protesters invoking her as they screech at patients that they’ll regret their abortions, who have watched interview clips of her gravely proclaiming that millions of innocent babies were murdered in her name, it’s a shocking, even devastating, revelation. That she could be so blasé makes it sting even more. “It just really hurts,” a pro-choice activist who once worked alongside McCorvey says in the documentary, fighting back tears, “because it’s really big stakes.”
But McCorvey was always an uneasy symbol, and struggled with the expectations that accompanied her role as spokesperson for both sides of the issue. She spent years publicly supporting the pro-choice cause, but always felt like she was never accepted by her fellow activists, who were largely upper-class and well educated. “I wasn’t good enough for them,” she said in 1995. “I was a street kid.” The Evangelical movement never fully embraced her either, and though she read the anti-abortion scripts enthusiastically, her paid advocacy came at great personal cost: Anti-abortion leaders pressured her into breaking up with her girlfriend of 27 years, even going so far as to offer the buy her a house so she could move out of the home they shared. In the documentary, she shows off gifts she received from her ex-partner years ago, which she’s held on to for decades, with trembling hands.
Whenever I think about McCorvey’s life, I’m struck by how tragic and small it seems compared to the grand anti-abortion fable that swallowed her. The story of born-again Jane Roe, as anti-abortion groups tell it, is the story of a woman finding peace and a sense of purpose in joining the pro-life crusade — but Norma McCorvey never achieved either. She was often alone, always in desperate search of acceptance, always struggling to fit into a role she wasn’t quite suited for, even if she was acting out of self-interest. Though she happily took money from the anti-abortion movement, she struggled to make a living on it — by 2013, according to a profile of her in Vanity Fair, she was subsisting on room and board from strangers and occasional handouts from the church. Even the pastor who baptized her, and showed her off like the ultimate trophy, sought to distance himself from her: “She just fishes for money,” he groused to the magazine.
McCorvey’s biographer recently told the Times that he thought her ultimate motivation in taking up the anti-abortion cause was more complicated than just financial need — though it’s clear it played a significant role. “It was a desire to be wanted and listened to,” he said. If that was her desire, it was never realized. The story the anti-abortion movement crafted about her was of simple redemption, and in their telling her rebirth necessarily eradicated all prior context. The circumstances of her upbringing, which contributed to her decision to seek to terminate her pregnancy, and which arguably shaped her life until it ended — the destitution, the abuse, the lack of opportunity — none of that matters to those who insist that abortion is the only real evil in her story.
Thinking about Norma McCorvey’s life, and the far bleaker reality lurking under the series of neat narratives that came to define it, I think about other stories I’ve heard from anti-abortion advocates, other moral parables they’re happy to trot out, and the barely concealed cruelties they contain. I think about how blatant their selective empathy is, how many times I’ve heard old, white, Christian men insist that it’s inhumane to think of having a baby in financial terms, that anyone can figure out a way if they just put their mind to it — as though generational poverty is an obstacle one can overcome with sheer will and a prayer. I think about the crisis pregnancy centers I’ve visited, where volunteers will pose as doctors and feed women misinformation in order to convince them to carry their pregnancies to term, and how the volunteers will boast about donating diapers and other necessities to women they’ve talked out of abortion. Beneath that sunny narrative lurks a much darker one: one of religious zealots convincing someone who can’t afford to have a child that she will be a sinner unless she does. I think about Christians claiming that all pregnancies caused by rape are a gift from God.
I have a parable of my own, about a minister I encountered outside of a Planned Parenthood in Missouri. He had come there with an anti-abortion protest group, and gave an impassioned sidewalk sermon, shouting through a bullhorn about a young woman he knew who’d been sexually abused by a family member, who’d gotten pregnant several times, who was forced to endure what he termed “the horror of abortion” repeatedly. He said she had grown severely depressed, that she had lost the will to live, and he blamed abortion for all of that; only in refusing to terminate her most recent pregnancy was she able to find happiness and salvation.
I don’t know if his story is true. I hope it isn’t. But regardless, I was overcome by how terribly limited his empathy was in telling it. After he descended from his makeshift pulpit, I approached him and asked: How can you say that abortion had ruined her life, when she was also suffering sexual abuse, and seemingly had no one to turn to? He was stunned by the question, and brushed it off quickly, a hint of irritation playing across his face. I had the impression he’d never once considered it. But why should he? The anti-abortion movement needs to tell certain stories about pregnant people in order to justify itself — in which they’re either venerated wombs, bestowing the gift of life upon some innocent unborn child, or else they are inhuman murderers. There’s always a path for redemption, of course, in “choosing life,” but there’s never a way to be fully human. This last story was the one they paid Norma McCorvey to tell; unfortunately for them, her true redemption may have come in exposing its ugly subtext.