For two and a half decades, the anti-abortion movement has weaponized the story of Norma McCorvey against reproductive rights in the United States. But it finally backfired on them.
McCorvey was Jane Roe in the 1973 Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade that legalized abortion in the United States. After the decision, she was an active supporter of abortion rights.
Then in 1995, while working at a Dallas abortion clinic, McCorvey met Flip Benham, an evangelical leader of the extremist anti-abortion group Operation Rescue, now called “Operation Save America.” Benham befriended McCorvey and offered her support to switch sides. In a backyard baptism with Benham, McCorvey converted to Christianity and soon became the face of the anti-abortion movement—a symbolic victory for anti-abortion groups.
McCorvey became a regular on the anti-abortion speakers circuit. In 1998, she co-wrote a memoir with evangelical Gary Thomas, which explained her decision to change sides. In 2003, she petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to rehear Roe v. Wade (they refused).
But shortly before she died in 2017, McCorvey revealed the truth.
“It was all an act. I did it well too. I am a good actress,” said McCorvey.
“This is my deathbed confession,” said McCorvey in the new documentary film “AKA Jane Roe,” which premiered on Hulu on May 22. With an oxygen tube in her nose, McCorvey describes herself as a “big fish” in the anti-abortion movement.
“I took their money, and they took me out in front of the cameras and told me what to say.”
The filmmakers documented that anti-abortion groups gave McCorvey about $456,911 in exchange for her participation in their movement. A 2013 Vanity Fair story on McCorvey detailed just how profitable her conversion was.
With the help of her new evangelical friends, McCorvey created a Texas nonprofit—Roe No More Ministry—from which she received a $40,000 yearly salary. On top of that, Benham paid McCorvey $200 a week and assisted her in selling the rights to her story to the Christian publisher Thomas Nelson, netting her $80,000. In 1999 alone, she earned $25,200 in speaking fees.
“Benham used McCorvey and her so-called conversion as his claim to fame for twenty years,” says duVergne Gaines, director of Feminist Majority Foundation’s National Clinic Access Project. “Now at long last, Benham, Operation Rescue and Operation Save America are exposed for the shameless bullies they are, intent upon denying women their most fundamental rights.”
Norma McCorvey’s supposed conversion supported the anti-abortion movement’s strategy to recruit women who had had abortions to oppose abortion (even though McCorvey had in fact never actually had an abortion).
Expanding beyond their traditional arguments for “fetal rights,” the anti-abortion movement claimed that abortion was harmful to women’s physical and emotional well-being—that women were “abortion’s second victims.” By recruiting women to say that they regretting abortion, the evangelical men in the anti-abortion movement could claim that they were just trying to protect women, obscuring the reality that they were endangering women’s lives and eroding their human rights.
The McCorvey story is just one more example of the long-standing pattern of dishonesty and hypocrisy in the anti-abortion movement.
“Crisis pregnancy centers” are another. Anti-abortion groups create fake health centers, often located nearby real reproductive health clinics. They give the fake clinics deceptive names in order to confuse women seeking abortion health care. They lure pregnant women into their offices, then lie to them about abortion, claiming that it causes cancer, infertility or depression. The anti-abortion movement has even successfully lobbied for laws requiring doctors to say these lies to their patients, reports the Guttmacher Institute.
McCorvey was a vulnerable target. She was a survivor of rape, incest, battering, poverty, homelessness and drug addiction. But while the anti-abortion movement exploited her story, McCorvey also used them.
“She’s a phony,” said Connie Gonzalez, McCorvey’s lesbian partner of 35 years—from 1971 until 2006—in a 2013 Vanity Fair expose about McCorvey.
“In truth, McCorvey has long been less pro-choice or pro-life than pro-Norma,” said the author of the Vanity Fair story Joshua Prager. “She has played Jane Roe every which way, venturing far from the original script to wring a living from the issue that has come to define her existence.”
At the end of the film, McCorvey says she was always pro-choice. “If a young woman wants to have an abortion, that’s no skin off my ass.”
Maybe her hypocrisy is why she got along so well in the anti-abortion movement all those years.