Norma McCorvey, better known as Jane Roe, was the personification of the moral and political debate around abortion in the United States in the second half of the 20th century.
Her controversial persona gave the media something to talk about until the day she died, especially after she admitted in the new documentary AKA Jane Roe premiered on FX that her decision to turn to the anti-abortion movement was driven by access to easy money.
“This is my deathbed confession,” she says, looking at director Nick Sweeney. “I took their money and they put me out in front of the camera and told me what to say, and that’s what I’d say.”
“It was all an act?” the director asks.
“Yeah,” she says. “I was good at it, too.”
As explained by the The Washington Post, the revelation comes 60 minutes into the 80-minute documentary. By minute 70, McCorvey has died, succumbing to heart failure in Katy, Texas, on February 18, 2017.
Norma Leah Nelson McCorvey was born in Simmesport, Louisiana in 1947, to a lower-class family. After moving to Houston, Texas, McCorvey, she was a victim of domestic abuse by her alcoholic mother.
From the age of 10, she had problems with authority due to theft, and once discovered kissing a girl she was forced to attend state-run institutions. At only 15, and after enduring sexual abuse by her mother’s cousin, she left home and married Woody McCorvey a year later.
Her husband’s abuse caused her to run back to her mother’s home, where she abandoned her first daughter, in 1965. She succumbed to alcohol and drug abuse, and eventually came out as a homosexual.
After becoming pregnant a second time and giving up her child for adoption, her third pregnancy led her to seek an abortion, a crusade that would eventually transform her into Jane Roe, the iconic name of Roe v. Wade, the ruling that would open the door to legal abortion in the United States.
Hand in hand with attorneys Linda Coffee and Sarah Weddington — who sought out pregnant women who wanted abortions — McCorvey’s case took three years to reach the Supreme Court. Though she never got an abortion herself, the ruling in her favor overturned a number of state and federal laws.
The lawsuit brought by Coffee and Weddington against District Attorney Henry Wade alleged that Texas’ anti-abortion laws were unconstitutional, using as a framework the fact that McCorvey had serious addiction problems and no recourse for maintaining and giving a healthy life to a child.
A three-judge panel of the Northern District Court of Texas ruled in her favor, but Texas appealed the decision by taking it directly to the Supreme Court.
In January 1973, the justices issued a 7-2 decision that ruled that the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides a “right to privacy” that protects a pregnant woman’s right to choose whether or not to have an abortion. But it also ruled that this right is not absolute, and must be balanced with the government’s interests in protecting women’s health and protecting prenatal life.
The balance test ended up being the state regulation of abortion during the three trimesters of pregnancy.
But for McCorvey, the story didn’t end there.
The scandal of her case led her to come out, saying aloud “I am Jane Roe,” and becoming the poster child for the pro-choice cause in the United States.
Her popularity caught the attention of evangelical minister Flip Benham, who convinced her to convert to Christianity, get baptized, and make it an event. From then on, McCorvey turned her speech around and became an activist for the opposite cause.
She quit her job at an abortion clinic, and became involved with the anti-abortion organization Operation Rescue, coming to the forefront of all campaigns to overturn the Supreme Court decision that her own life had inspired.
More than once she publicly admitted her regret, and made it a marketing platform for her books I Am Roe, and Won by Love.
In her final days, in what seemed like her second cleanse of conscience, McCorvey told Nick Sweeney that all her activism had been an act, fueled by large sums of money paid by the evangelical church, and that, in fact, she didn’t care whether a woman had an abortion or not.
“If a young woman wants to have an abortion, that’s no skin off my ass. That’s why they call it a choice,” she said.