America Never Paid Its Debt to Jane Roe

Illustration for article titled America Never Paid Its Debt to Jane Roe
Image: FX

Pop culture has not been kind to Norma McCorvey, the plaintiff at the center of Roe v. Wade. Cinematic and written depictions of McCorvey have alternated between painting her as a dumb country bumpkin or a calculating con artist, someone who was willing to pump both sides of the abortion picket lines for financial gain. FX’s new documentary about McCorvey’s life, AKA Jane Roe, allows McCorvey (who died in 2017) to tell her own story. But the complicated question of what a country that enjoys access to safe and legal abortion owes the woman whose story made that possible remains unanswered in a documentary that refuses to take sides.

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AKA Jane Roe opens with a montage outlining the history of the tug-of-war over Norma McCorvey, the plaintiff in Roe v. Wade. It’s what one newscaster, featured in the documentary, describes as “the furious battle that rages around all that her name has stood for.” But in contrast to all the shouting on either side of picket lines, McCorvey, 69 years old when the documentary was filmed, takes deep, gasping hits of oxygen out of a nasal cannula. “This is my death bed confession,” she tells the camera.

It’s only in the film’s final 20 minutes that McCorvey finally gets around to that death bed confession—in the mid-1990s, religious leaders paid her around $500,000 to feign conversion, denounce her “lesbian lifestyle,” and declare that the legal abortion she helped guarantee was actually murder.

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But the revelation isn’t so much a bombshell as it is the confirmation of something many have long assumed to be true: that McCorvey’s strange pivot was the result of a need for money rather than any ideological conviction. In 1996, Alexander Payne’s Citizen Ruth fictionalized McCorvey’s convenient and public conversion with Laura Dern in the role of Ruth—a manipulative, paint-huffing mercenary profiting off the fact that the right will do anything to paint her as a pro-life poster child, while militant lesbian feminists don’t care what happens to her as long as she terminates her pregnancy. In his review of the film, Roger Ebert praised the film for having the “reckless courage to take on both sides in the abortion debate.”

Twenty-four years after the release of Citizen Ruth, with abortion bans becoming a grim reality across America, there is nothing courageous or even funny about Payne’s mean-spirited, cynical film. Citizen Ruth, along with most other depictions of Jane Roe in popular culture, mostly just demonstrate that the way those on the left and right—who have largely never been penniless, desperate, and pregnant—talk about Norma McCorvey has always been rooted in judgment and class. McCorvey was chosen by attorneys Sarah Weddington and Linda Coffee as the plaintiff in Roe because she was poor, unmarried, drug-addicted, and told doctors she’d been raped (she would later say this was a lie, made up to obtain an abortion), exactly the kind of person it was easy to portray as vulnerable. Attorneys involved in the case as well as news reports and film adaptations would insinuate that she was to blame for her own misfortune while also maintaining that she was not a person who should have children.

McCorvey seems to view herself this way as well. “Women make mistakes, and they make mistakes with men,” she says, placing the burden of unwanted pregnancy squarely on the shoulders of those people carrying the fetus. In the years following the landmark case, which legalized abortion in all 50 states and launched the careers of both Weddington and Coffee, McCorvey was relinquished back to the shitty circumstances she came from, working as a house cleaner and shoplifting food while glamourous movie stars spoke out at pro-choice rallies and Holly Hunter won an Emmy for playing her in a TV movie. Then in the early ’90s, McCorvey and Gloria Allred launched a PR campaign to capitalize on her Jane Roe status, elevating her voice in the pro-choice movement and securing her a book deal for a memoir called I Am Roe.

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The idea that McCorvey should be compensated in some way for being Jane Roe is a complicated and fraught one. Certainly many benefitted from her decision: the American women who earned the right to safe, legal abortion, absolutely, but also movie studios, celebrities, legal teams, and, ultimately, evangelical ministers who would use abortion to launch their own careers as baby-loving, anti-choice crusaders.

It is clear that McCorvey was manipulated and taken advantage of by both the left and right. But the question remains: What did she deserve in return?

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And while the documentary is an interesting and intimate look at the life of Norma McCorvey, in interviews Sweeney says he chose to avoid considering how the abortion movement failed Norma McCorvey and how those failures factor into the current erosion of abortion rights:

“The focus of the film is Norma,” Sweeney told the Los Angeles Times. “With an issue like this there can be a temptation for different players to reduce ‘Jane Roe’ to en emblem or a trophy, and behind that is a real person with a real story.”

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In a grand sense, Sweeney is wrong. The focus, unfortunately, has been too long on Norma—from Hunter’s portrayal of her as a working-class hero, to Laura Dern’s turn as a drug-addled grifter, to an upcoming right-wing film treatment of her conversion narrative starring Jon Voight and Stacey Dash. It’s impossible to disconnect McCorvey’s story from the ebbing cultural tides surrounding abortion in America–a sense of triumph in the 1970s and ‘80s to a state of confusion in 2020, when abortion both is and is not legal in some parts of the country. Ultimately, Norma McCorvey was a fascinating but flawed person who undoubtedly used her involvement with Roe v. Wade to play both sides for her own gain. But she’s also someone who was exploited her entire life, first by abusive family members and later by the entire country. The country’s failure to do right by McCorvey is similar to its failure to protect access to abortion; the documentary, however, remains too chickenshit to interrogate that relationship.

“If a young woman wants to have an abortion, that’s no skin off my ass,” McCorvey said just before she watched Hillary Clinton lose the presidential election to Donald Trump—and for a moment, she seems to understand and regret her part in the rise of the evangelical right and the subsequent threat that rise poses to the choice she helped make legal. But like young women all over the country in states increasingly working to overthrow Roe v. Wade, McCorvey never got her abortion. She learned of the ruling in the paper before Sarah Waddington called her on the telephone to say “We won.”

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“No Sarah,” McCorvey remembers saying, “You won. I had a baby.” Whether Jane Roe is a “good person” or a con artist who spent her life spouting lines penned by fame-seeking people on whatever side was offering money and attention, she should have been able to have her abortion. And with rabid politicians and clergy still seeking to advance their careers by daily eroding that right across the country, it’s time to stop using McCorvey as a trickster figure to portray both sides as equally at fault for the abysmal state of American reproductive choice. America owed McCorvey the right to make choices about her own body, but instead, her story has been rolled out like a sideshow act to distract from the real con—opportunists looking to rob everyone of their reproductive freedom.

AKA Jane Roe premieres tonight on FX.

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DISCUSSION

while glamourous movie stars spoke out at pro-choice rallies and Holly Hunter won an Emmy for playing her in a TV movie.

Same thing happened with Crystal Lee Sutton, the labor organizer woman who inspired the movie Norma Rae (she had to sue to get any money from them using her life for it).

I’ll say this for the Legal Right - they pay their plaintiffs generously. Mark Janus (the guy who was the plaintiff for the Supreme Court case that barred public sector unions from charging any sort of bargaining fee for non-members covered by the contract) got a lucrative job with vague responsibilities at an anti-union think tank after the case was done.