A Documentary Film Review
AKA Jane Roe
FX and Hulu, 2020
Directed by Nick Sweeney
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FX and Hulu recently released the documentary AKA Jane Roe promoting the deathbed confession of Norma McCorvey, the woman known by most as the Jane Roe of Roe v. Wade. McCorvey allegedly confided to documentarian Nick Sweeney that her pro-life work, spanning more than two decades, was a lie. In her own words, “I took their money, and they put me out in front of the cameras and told me what to say, and that’s what I’d say.” The story as reported casts a pall over her much-celebrated conversion to the pro-life community, while affirming cynical views held by abortion supporters concerning the character of those who fight legal abortion.
Friends of McCorvey responded immediately, even before the documentary aired. They told a story of a troubled woman used by pro-choice lawyers and activists who ultimately found the community she craved in pro-life Christians and the Roman Catholic Church. A lifetime of struggles burdened McCorvey, as well as guilt associated with her public legacy. They claim in making AKA Jane Roe, pro-choice advocates who had little use for McCorvey in life abused a woman of declining mental stability and health one last time.
Norma McCorvey died on February 18, 2017. She can no longer set the record straight either way. The resources necessary to evaluate these claims, however, do exist in the record of her public life and testimony of friends. Documentaries should never be accepted on their face — Nick Sweeney, like all people, possesses a personal point of view. It is always helpful to ask what efforts were made, if any, to prevent Sweeney’s point of view from unfairly influencing the finished product.
Finally, it is fair to ask whether McCorvey’s views on abortion matter at all. The ethical evaluation of abortion hangs on the nature of unborn life, not on what the plaintiff in the most famous Supreme Court case of the last century felt. Why does it matter to so many people, even years after her death, what one troubled woman thought about the right and wrong of abortion?
Who Was Norma McCorvey?
Most of the facts of Norma McCorvey’s life as shared in AKA Jane Roe remain undisputed. At around 11 years of age she ran away from abandonment and abuse, only to be arrested when caught by the hotel maid kissing the other young girl who ran with her. The police charged her with violating sodomy laws; and ultimately authorities remanded her to an all-girls reform program where she lived until the age of 15, reporting to have had several girlfriends. After being released, she briefly stayed with a distant relative of her mother’s who raped her repeatedly over a three-week span. She impetuously married Woody McCorvey and became pregnant with the first of her three children, Melissa, which triggered her husband into a sustained violent rage quickly ending their marriage. Her mother took custody of Melissa in protest of Norma’s continued homosexual behavior and struggles with substance abuse. A second pregnancy, a second daughter whom she placed in adoption, deepened her emotional issues. At the age of 21 and living in Dallas, she became pregnant for the third time. Falsely claiming to be a victim of rape and pursuing options, she was advised that two young lawyers sought a client to challenge abortion laws. Sarah Weddington and Linda Coffee took her case and a troubled young woman became the most famous complainant in modern history.
McCorvey and the Pro-Choice Movement
From the outset, Weddington and Coffee showed little interest in McCorvey. Weddington admitted McCorvey was nothing more than a figure with the necessary legal standing.1 They intended to challenge all abortion law, not procure an individual woman a single abortion. Legal scholar Joseph Dellapenna suggests this explains why they never included the story of the rape in the early days of the case.2 That might have opened the door for McCorvey to get her abortion before Weddington and Coffee fully advanced their agenda. She gave birth to her third daughter and placed her in adoption long before the legal victory of Roe v. Wade came on January 22, 1973. McCorvey read about the decision in the newspaper.3
Seven years later when McCorvey broke her anonymity and publicly acknowledged her identity as Jane Roe, pro-choice leaders still had little use for her. She wanted to be a voice for abortion, but pro-choice leaders saw her as an undesirable advocate. She could be a symbol, but not a voice of the movement. McCorvey believed they resented her and viewed her being Jane Roe as an unfortunate accident.4 She once introduced herself to an audience by declaring, “I am Jane Roe, and the rest of these women wish they were.”
McCorvey’s Turning Point
McCorvey once shared how Flip Benham, then the head of the pro-life organization Operation Rescue and featured in the documentary, publicly shamed her at a book signing for contributing to the deaths of millions of unborn lives.5 She said it crushed her. When Operation Rescue later procured the suite next to the abortion facility where McCorvey worked, Benham approached her while she smoked a cigarette. He apologized for how he spoke to her and asked her forgiveness. The apology deeply affected McCorvey and set her on a path leading to her conversion to Christianity and renouncing her former beliefs toward abortion. According to David Benham, Flip’s son, when her newfound beliefs got McCorvey and her longtime girlfriend Connie Gonzales fired from the abortion clinic, the Benham family took care of them.6 Pro-choice scholar David Garrow claimed that the conversion of McCorvey “actually had little to do with abortion and far more with how Benham gave her the warmth and respect she rarely had felt from Roe’s supporters.”7 Dellapenna adds:
McCorvey indeed records incident after incident of being neglected or insulted by leaders of the “pro-choice” movement when she did attempt to become a public supporter of abortion rights. And whether Garrow realizes it or not, his “excuse” for her defection is far more damning of the pro-abortion activist than if McCorvey had converted out of a considered reaction to abortion itself.8
Who Gets to Tell Their Norma Stories?
Every filmmaker has a point of view and makes choices about what to include in the final cut; what to reveal and what to leave unspoken. In Sweeney’s case, it appears he made telling choices about whom he would allow to tell McCorvey’s story and whom he would not.
Fr. Frank Pavone of Priests for Life was McCorvey’s close friend for 22 years and refers to her as his sister.9 He performed her last rights and the homily at her funeral but was never interviewed in AKA Jane Roe. David Benham discussed his family’s enduring relationship with both McCorvey and Gonzales in a recent interview, yet the only representative of the Benham family in AKA Jane Roe is the father, Flip. Close friend Janet Morana of Silent No More Awareness knew her for more than two decades, traveled with her, and even lived with her but makes no contribution to the documentary whatsoever.10 Given McCorvey’s conversion to Catholicism, it seems natural that someone who shared that aspect of her life ought to have been included.
Who did Sweeney include? A small handful of pro-choice advocates with no significant relationship to McCorvey and the Reverend Rob Schenck. Schenck published a response to AKA Jane Roe at his website, acknowledging that he used McCorvey to raise money for his organization.11 He affirms that McCorvey was paid and brandished as a political trophy against legalized abortion, saying, “I know damn well we were playing her.” Sweeney frames Schenck as the opposite of Flip Benham’s unrepentant preacher. Schenck sits in an immaculate space wearing a tailored suit thoughtfully bemoaning his cooperation in using McCorvey for gain. Given the substance of his writings, his discomfort is understandable. Schenk changed his own views on abortion and now evaluates his role in McCorvey’s life negatively, especially his insistence that she sever her relationship with Gonzales.12
Schenk’s mood stands in contrast with the numerous unseen pro-life friends reflecting on her in public responses to the documentary. They write and talk about their love for her, her acknowledging her homosexual relationship with Gonzales, her tendency to swear, her smoking, her drinking, her erratic behavior, and her habit of saying outrageous things for impact. They share as those reminiscing on the quirks of a friend they were grateful to know. McCorvey confided to many of them feeling a heavy burden from being attached to the court case that legalized the destruction of unborn human life on a massive scale. Abby Johnson, the subject of the film Unplanned, shared on Facebook that McCorvey reached out to her shortly before her death desiring to talk to someone else “with a large number,” referring to the number of unborn human lives lost through their previous work. This doesn’t sound like someone faking her pro-life convictions.13
Evidence offered for the insincerity of her pro-life beliefs is that she was paid around $450,000. That sounds like a tremendous amount of money, unless it is a sum acquired over 22 years, in which case it averages $20,000 per year. That hardly sounds like an amount capable of inducing a woman to live a lie for more than two decades, including deceiving her closest friends even in their most intimate moments.
No one denies helping McCorvey. The Benhams describe the nature of the help they provided as consistent with what they offered to anyone seeking to escape a life working professionally in the abortion industry.14 Fr. Pavone acknowledges that she was paid because she did work; it is called a job. They all categorically deny any motivation to entice her to betray her convictions. As both Fr. Pavone and David Benham explicitly stated, all of these things were done out of Christian love.
And how should this criticism impact our evaluation of the documentary itself? McCorvey claimed to both Fr. Pavone and her former lawyer Allan Parker that Sweeney paid her to tell her story.15
Does it matter?
Does McCorvey’s judgment on abortion really matter? Defense of the pro-life position as good and true builds from identifying the unborn as full members of the human family sharing the same equal dignity all of us have as image bearers of God. That case is made using science and philosophy, not anyone’s biography. What Norma McCorvey believed at any point of her life has zero bearing on how we answer the question, “What is the unborn?”
Still, the truth matters. Norma McCorvey should not be paraded as a prop for anyone’s agenda. All human beings ought to be treated with dignity and respect. Did Sweeney offer her a chance to tell us something true about herself, as Rev. Schenck seems to believe; or did he swoop in at the last moments of her life and piece together snap shots to fashion a tale of pro-life deceit and hypocrisy, as Fr. Pavone charges? Whatever confession Sweeney extracted, it fails to justify parading the intimate details of this troubled woman’s story one more time. There is no political victory to be gained by mining the last words of Norma McCorvey.
Rev. Schenk remarked in the documentary that Norma’s funeral represented the final time she would be dragged out as a trophy in the abortion wars. I beg to differ with the Reverend and pray she may someday be allowed to rest in peace.
Jay Watts is founder and president of Merely Human Ministries, an organization defending intrinsic human dignity.
- Joseph W. Dellapenna, Dispelling the Myths of Abortion History, (Durham: Carolina Academic Press, 2006), 679.
- Dellapenna, Dispelling the Myths of Abortion History, 681.
- Dellapenna, Dispelling the Myths of Abortion History, 682.
- Jacqulyne Anton, “The Life and Legacy of Norma McCorvey,” History in the Making, Vol. 11 , Article 11 (2018), https://scholarworks.lib.csusb.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1006&context=history-in-the-making.
- Benham Brothers, “Jane Roe True Story,” Facebook, May 20, 2020, https://www.facebook.com/BenhamBrothers/videos/3550849074932183/?v=3550849074932183.
- The Line of Fire with Dr. Michael Brown with Special Guest David Benham, “The Real Truth About Norma McCorvey the ‘Roe’ in Roe v. Wade,” streamed live on YouTube, May 20, 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xQGwFletHOg&feature=youtu.be.
- David Garrow, Liberty and Sexuality: The Right of Privacy and the Making of Roe v Wade, second edition (New York: Macmillan, 1998), 720.
- Dellapenna, Dispelling the Myths of Abortion History, 682.
- Father Frank Pavone, “BREAKING LIVE!!!! Norma McCorvey DID NOT put on an ACT,” Facebook, May 19, 2020, https://www.facebook.com/watch/live/?v=589929218299747&ref=watch_permalink.
- Pavone, “BREAKING LIVE!!!! Norma McCorvey DID NOT put on an ACT.”
- Rev. Rob Schenck, “A Movie That Bares the Soul Behind Roe v. Wade…Along with My Own,” May 18, 2020, Reverand Rob Schenck, https://www.revrobschenck.com/blog/2020/5/18/a-movie-that-bares-the-soul-behind-roe-v-wade-along-with-my-own-.
- Schenck says he’s moved “away from legalistic religion and abusive certainty toward a gospel of limitless love” (“A Movie That Bares the Soul Behind Roe v. Wade…Along with My Own”).
- Abby Johnson, Facebook, May 20, 2020, https://www.facebook.com/abbyjohnsonprolife/posts/3258768160799901?__tn__=K-R.
- Benham Brothers, “Jane Roe True Story.”
- Tyler O’Neil, “Deceptive Editing? Norma McCorvey From Roe v. Wade Didn’t Reject the Pro-Life Cause, Former Lawyer Says, PJ Media, May 21, 2020, https://pjmedia.com/culture/tyler-o-neil/2020/05/21/deceptive-editing-norma-mccorvey-from-roe-v-wade-didnt-reject-the-pro-life-cause-former-lawyer-says-n411563.