Norma McCorvey was controversial in life and now, three years after her death, she is still making headlines. McCorvey was Jane Roe of Roe v Wade, the seismic 1973 US supreme court decision which legalised abortion. By 2015, more than 50 million abortions had been carried out in the US. In 1995, McCorvey had a Damascene conversion and became a pro-life activist.
A new documentary, AKA Jane Roe, by filmmaker Nick Sweeney, features what McCorvey calls her "deathbed confession". She says that she was always pro-choice and that she was paid by the religious right to make anti-abortion statements.
She tells 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.”
At least one Evangelical minister believes that McCorvey was exploited. Rev Rob Schenck says on his blog that he regrets the way that his pro-life organisation used her. While she earned some money, it was never anything like the windfall of money that her appearances generated for his organisation and others like it.
When she told him after her conversion that she still approved of abortion in the first trimester, Schenk says that he brushed it aside, put it down to the fact that she was a recent convert and hoped that she would change her mind.
It seems clear that elements of the Christian Evangelical Right were engaging at best in wishful thinking and at worst, outright exploitation of a vulnerable woman. As a result, many pro-life people simply accepted her public presentation.
McCorvey had a childhood once described by the New York Times as a Dickensian nightmare.
She became pregnant by three different men, the first time at 16, and all three children were adopted or taken away. She had problems with alcohol and substance abuse. Schenck describes how she would often turn up to meetings drunk and foul-mouthed.
Money always seems to have been a prime motivator. At one point in the documentary, she chuckles and says that she’s always looking out for herself. While her motivation is less than laudable, it is very understandable given her hardscrabble life.
Writer Joshua Prager spent hundreds of hours with McCorvey in the last four years of her life, researching a biography. He says in the New York Times that McCorvey's story is far from simple. He says that "she was coached on both sides, and she was paid on both sides".
As a poverty-stricken 22 year old and unhappily pregnant for the third time, she was the perfect test case for pro-choice lawyers Sarah Waddington and Linda Coffee, who had wanted for a long time to overturn Texan abortion law. She was five months pregnant when the proceedings began and just wanted a quick abortion. McCorvey had originally claimed that she was gang-raped, a claim she retracted in 1987.
Given the pace these cases normally proceed at, as experienced lawyers Waddington and Coffee must have realised that McCorvey had no hope of securing an abortion. McCorvey says she was never informed of that fact.
Once the case began, McCorvey became irrelevant. She was not required to testify and was virtually ignored. She had long delivered and given up her third child for adoption by the time she read about the result of Roe v Wade – in the newspaper like everyone else.
Prager also interviewed Melissa, McCorvey's first child, and Connie Gonzalez, who was McCorvey's partner for much of her life.
Both Melissa and Gonzalez cast doubts on McCorvey's truthfulness. One of McCorvey's key stories concerned Gonzalez protecting her with her body when pro-life activists fired a shotgun at her house in 1989. Gonzalez said flatly to Prager the shooting never happened.
A few days after the alleged shooting, McCorvey flew to Washington where pro-choice lawyer Gloria Allred took her under her wing. Suddenly, the woman who worked as a house cleaner was hobnobbing with the likes of Gloria Steinem and Jane Fonda. She was sent on speaking and media training courses. The pro-choice side was also aware of her instability and substance abuse. But the movement which had more or less ignored her was now happy to have her endorse their platforms and political candidates.
McCorvey never had an abortion but she worked in clinics. When Rev Flip Benham set up an Operation Rescue office next door to her abortion clinic, an unlikely friendship formed. Eventually, he baptised her in a swimming pool. Her pro-life activism began and she claimed to be 100 per cent pro-life. Interestingly, Sweeney, the director of the documentary, believes her religious conversion was real.
Neither side of the abortion debate emerges from the McCorvey story well, not the pro-choice lawyers who exploited her case, nor the Christian Right who treated her like a trophy. Elements of both sides of the debate used McCorvey when it suited them. Nor does McCorvey emerge as the most truthful person. However, given her life circumstances, she probably has more of an excuse than some of the others who claimed much higher motivation.