Pro-life critics say documentary’s Jane Roe bombshell is a dud
Film claims advocates manipulated the woman who went from landmark abortion case plaintiff to pro-life activist
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A new documentary is set to drop a bombshell on the abortion debate. In AKA Jane Roe, Norma McCorvey, the Roe of Roe v. Wade, reportedly says during a “deathbed confession” that her conversion from pro-abortion heroine to pro-life activist was “all an act.”
While major media outlets are trumpeting the news, and pro-abortion activists are welcoming the opportunity to discredit the pro-life movement, many people who knew McCorvey personally insist that her Christian faith and pro-life beliefs were genuine.
“It’s impossible,” Frank Pavone, national director of Priests for Life and a longtime confidant of McCorvey, told me. He says he was with her in public and private moments and insists “the chances are zero” that McCorvey’s pro-life activism was a charade. She often sat alone quietly, Pavone said, making rosaries that she would give away.
FX will air the documentary Friday. WORLD made several requests to screen the film before it aired, but FX never responded.
McCorvey, who said she never had an abortion, was the anonymous plaintiff in the 1973 Supreme Court case that forced states to legalize abortion. But in 1995, she became a Christian and was baptized. Three years later she joined the Catholic Church, and Pavone confirmed her.
For years, McCorvey made countless public appearances at pro-life events. She hoped to undo the damage associated with her controversial alias. In 2005, she testified before the U.S. Senate, urging senators to do “everything in [their] power to reverse Roe v. Wade.”
In AKA Jane Roe, director Nick Sweeney, who also produced TV documentaries My Transgender Summer Camp and The Sex Robots are Coming, films an ailing McCorvey seemingly reversing her position.
“If a young woman wants to have an abortion,” McCorvey says in the film, “that’s no skin off my [profanity]. That’s why they call it choice.” She also says in the film she switched sides on the issue for financial gain: “I took their money and they took me out in front of the cameras and told me what to say. I did it well too. I am a good actress. Of course, I’m not acting now.”
In the film, Rob Schenck, an evangelical minister, suggests McCorvey did not always deal with pro-lifers forthrightly. Schenck knew McCorvey for more than 20 years and was one of three clergy who officiated at her funeral in 2017. He claims McCorvey was “playing” the pro-life movement, and pro-life activists were “playing her.”
Schenck also recently recanted his pro-life beliefs. He spent decades in the pro-life movement, organizing anti-abortion protests and “rescues” at abortion centers. But in 2019, he wrote in The New York Times that he had been wrong to oppose abortion and LGBTQ rights.
Schenck told me he was “surprised but not shocked” that McCorvey said what she did in the film and that she had hinted at not really opposing abortion.
“At the end of her life, at least, she took a pragmatic pro-choice view,” Schenck said. “But her whole life was a bid for survival.”
In the documentary, Sweeney produces documents showing McCorvey received $456,000 over several years from pro-life groups, payment for reciting “scripted anti-abortion lines” in front of cameras. But such a revelation is hardly a bombshell, Operation Rescue founder Randall Terry told me.
“She made her living from contributions and speaking engagement fees,” Terry said. He often traveled around the country with McCorvey and once put her up in his house for a month. Pro-life leaders occasionally helped McCorvey write speeches. “But that amount over all those years is not a lot of money.”
McCorvey “could say things that were controversial,” Cheryl Sullenger, a friend of McCorvey and senior vice president of Operation Rescue, told me. She recalled a few times that McCorvey, tired after a long speaking engagement, used colorful language to put off pro-lifers who asked her personal questions.
“The chances are zero that her pro-life beliefs were fake,” Sullenger said.
Pro-life advocate Abby Johnson said Wednesday in a statement that McCorvey called her days before she died to talk with someone else who had a “big number”—abortions for which she felt responsible. “She felt like she owned them all,” Johnson, a former Planned Parenthood director, said.
Johnson also encouraged people to listen to Pavone’s assessment of McCorvey’s position: “He knew the real Norma. And he knew the sincerity of her conversion.”
Pavone says he witnessed firsthand McCorvey’s regret. Although she never had an abortion, she once attended a Rachel’s Vineyard retreat, a ministry to post-abortive women. Pavone helped lead the retreat. He doesn’t think she would have put herself through it if she hadn’t felt she needed to.
“We saw the grief, the pain, the crying,” Pavone said.
Pavone disputed the claim that the McCorvey interview was a “deathbed confession.” Pavone said the filming occurred in May 2016, nine months before she died. Pavone encouraged Sweeney to release all his footage.
“She could be erratic, but her journey isn’t captured in a single story,” Pavone said. Pavone, who also officiated at McCorvey’s funeral, spoke with her on the phone the day she died. She was coherent and made him promise that he and other pro-lifers would “continue with the cause.”
He’s not worried about the film damaging pro-life efforts: “Our stance on abortion doesn’t depend on one person’s sincerity.”