Who Was the Real Norma McCorvey?

EDITORIAL: We still don’t know, as the producers of AKA Jane Roe gave her very little room to tell her story.

Norma McCorvey, the former Roe of Roe v.Wade, holds up a copy of her petition on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court on January 18, 2005 in Washington, DC.
Norma McCorvey, the former Roe of Roe v.Wade, holds up a copy of her petition on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court on January 18, 2005 in Washington, DC. (photo: Travis Lindquist/Getty Images)

Was Norma McCorvey — the Jane Roe behind Roe v. Wade — manipulated and exploited? Was she used to advance a cause that wasn’t hers?

It’s hard to say if exploitation was the intent of the producers of AKA Jane Roe, an FX television documentary that purported to show who Norma McCorvey really was and what she really believed.

But whatever the reason for its making, the short film — which billed itself as McCorvey’s “deathbed confession” where she apparently reveals her pro-life work was all an act — was heavy on implication and light on building a fact-based narrative.

It gave McCorvey very little space to tell her personal story and never asked her to do more than scratch the surface of a complicated and difficult life that encompassed an abusive and unstable childhood, divorce, substance abuse and her children being raised by others — even before she became pregnant again with the unborn baby that sparked the Roe litigation process. As her case wound through the courts, McCorvey, who never had an abortion, gave birth to a daughter, who was placed for adoption. Around the same time, she entered a lesbian sexual relationship that lasted for decades, until her conversion.

In the 1980s, McCorvey’s identity as Jane Roe became widely known, and she began advocating for the pro-abortion cause. She worked in an abortion business until dramatically shifting course in 1995, when she was baptized in a televised ceremony by Protestant pastor and pro-life leader Flip Benham, whom she had met the previous year. She began speaking at pro-life events and in 1998 became a Catholic, continuing to practice the faith for the rest of her life. 

According to the FX documentary, this final stage of her life was largely a fraud. However, McCorvey’s own story was framed by the voice of an unreliable narrator, Rob Schenck, a previously pro-life pastor who has distanced himself in recent years from his past commitment to the unborn, the pro-life movement and the defense of traditional marriage. It was that narrator who said most directly that the movement he has since rejected exploited McCorvey.

Reducing a life as difficult, complicated and painful as McCorvey’s to a few minutes of dialogue, framed by a narrator with his own agenda, is either exploitative or patently irresponsible. Moreover, the film’s release three years after McCorvey’s death, in an election year where the debate over abortion is climactic, leaves FX’s allegedly altruistic motivations highly suspect. One thing that is clear is that AKA Jane Roe did not do justice to the person of Norma McCorvey, nor to the positive motivations of the vast majority of pro-life advocates.

Indeed, while it could be that some in the pro-life movement themselves failed to do justice to McCorvey, the best lesson to be learned from the one-sided documentary is the need to always place the person first.

Those who have worked in the pro-life movement for any length of time know that working with men and women considering abortion, or experiencing the pain of abortion, is always fraught with complexity because of the intricacies of human hearts and relationships. Pro-life accompaniment — if it is authentic — means walking alongside those like Norma McCorvey who carry a great deal of pain and confusion and offering to them an unconditional, unjudgmental love.

Norma McCorvey’s complicated life should remind us of the danger of putting people on pedestals — of making human beings, with all their frailties, into icons. Instrumentalizing people in that way, however well-intentioned, is not good for the pro-life movement, but, even more importantly, it can be distressing and disorienting for those thrust into public roles for which they are not prepared.

It must be remembered that such persons, like everyone else, are on a continuing journey: All conversions take a lifetime, and the ongoing healing of the heart and firming of the will that is involved requires a constant connection with God, in the context of a supportive community of faith.

The controversy over McCorvey also highlights the vulnerability of women in the fight for the lives of the unborn. It demonstrates the need to love both mother and baby. 

The pro-life movement, at its best, walks with women through prenatal care, labor and delivery, postpartum months, and parenting or the adoption process; as well as through the stages of growth, healing and support required for any mother, especially mothers who have had difficult or unwanted pregnancies.

To be pro-life is to care for every human person throughout their lives, even to their deathbeds.

Norma McCorvey, in all her complexity, is and was a beloved daughter of God. Many pro-life people came to love her during her life on earth. They believe she loved them, too. And now, all of us should pray for her soul and pray for the culture of life she so frequently spoke about.

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