I promised earlier this week that I would watch the documentary, AKA Jane Roe, when it came out on Friday. As it happened, I couldn’t watch it with my Hulu account until Saturday afternoon, so that’s what I did– it’s now available for anyone with a Hulu account. I came away disgusted, but not by any major flaws in the film itself. It’s a solid, sometimes unnecessarily dramatic portrayal of one of the most tragic life stories I’ve ever heard.
As a documentary, AKA Jane Roe is not the best I’ve ever seen but it’s far from the worst. The reenactments of touchstone moments in her childhood feel a bit contrived; certain parts of her conversion in the latter part of the film are rushed over. I wonder if the documentary wouldn’t have been even better split into three one-hour programs. Still, it’s a serious film, thoughtfully put together. I appreciate how it allows the selfish people on both sides of the abortion issue to hang by their own rope– both pro-choice feminists and pro-life clergy exploited Norma McCorvey, and people on both sides come off looking terrible. That’s as it should be.
From a journalistic viewpoint, I don’t know that the interviews with Norma are quite as incisive as they could have been– she’s not pushed to explain her past actions and some lies she admittedly told in the past, she’s just allowed to say whatever she wants. And often enough, that’s plenty.
Norma McCorvey, when allowed to speak in her own words and not according to someone’s script, describes herself as a “hick out of hickville.” She’s a crabby, likable old Texas lady with a foul mouth; she smokes as she feeds ducks at the park, drinks as she gets a pedicure, and has a fondness for coloring pages and large sunglasses. She says she wanted to be an actress when she was a child; early in the film, she recites a monologue from Act Three of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, mistakenly saying “the last syllable of record time” instead of “the last syllable of recorded time.”
I kept thinking of her desire to be an actress, and of the Scottish Play, as I watched her life story over the next hour.
Norma McCorvey could never be anything but an actress. She was constantly acting because otherwise she wouldn’t have survived. McCorvey was an abused child, born to a poor alcoholic woman who didn’t want her. She ran away from home with a female friend she considered a lover at age ten, and was sent to reform school as punishment. After reform school she was palmed off on a relative who molested her. She ended up a victim of statutory rape by a customer who sexually harassed her at her job at a drive-in restaurant when she was fifteen; her mother forced her to marry the man, but the marriage fell apart when she had her first baby. Her mother stole the baby away and was granted full custody– according to Norma, because Norma was a lesbian. When she got pregnant again, in 1969, she sought an abortion–first from a legal doctor, then from a filthy back alley illegal abortion clinic which she fled at the last minute. It was the adoption attorney that she contacted next, who directed her to the two attorneys who were trying to change Texas’s abortion laws, and they got her to sign an affidavit under the alias “Jane Roe.” Three years later, when Norma’s baby had already been born and adopted, Roe Versus Wade was decided by the Supreme Court, and abortion in the first trimester was declared to be a woman’s constitutional right in the United States.
Norma’s alias of Jane Roe was reverently invoked by those in favor of legal abortion for years while she worked as a cleaning lady; then she went public under her own name in the 1980s. She was often silenced and viewed with embarrassment by the wealthier, better educated feminists who had revered her when she was only known as Jane Roe. Sometimes she was jet-setted all over the country and treated like a celebrity, as long as she said what was expected. And then, in the nineties, Norma McCorvey got religion. She was baptized in a swimming pool and worked as a pro-life activist for Operation Rescue, which reportedly gave her hundreds of thousands of dollars in what the reverend Rob Schenck calls “Benevolence gifts.” She eventually became a Catholic. Her conversion story was considered an enormous victory for the pro-life movement.
And it was all a lie.
This is the part of the film I was afraid was overblown, contrived or exaggerated when I read all the reviews ahead of the movie’s release this week. But it’s not. If anything, the reporting is too mild. Norma McCorvey answers specific questions with absolute certainty and she does not mince words.
“Did they use you as a trophy?” she’s asked.
“Of course,” she says. “I was the big fish.”
“Do you think they would say you used them?”
“Well, I think it was a mutual thing. You know, 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.”
She then recites word for word a speech that she often gave, as if it was her own, that she was actually coached to give by her handlers in the pro-life movement. It’s not unlike the way she recites the monologue from Macbeth.
“It was all an act?” the interviewer asks.
“Yeah. I did it well, too. I AM a good actress. Of course I’m not acting now.”
The Reverent Schenck, one of the preachers who converted Norma and who has since distanced himself from Operation Rescue, watches this confession for the first time, visibly horrified and embarrassed. But then he admits that it’s all true. “I had never heard her say anything like this, ever. But I knew what we were doing. And there were times I was sure she knew. And I wondered: is she playing us? What I didn’t have the guts to say was, ‘because I know damn well we’re playing her.’ What we did with Norma was highly unethical. The jig is up.”
He even admits that they targeted Norma specifically because she was so vulnerable, and as clerics they knew how to “exploit” such a woman.
The Protestant preacher who baptized Norma, Flip Benham, denies that Norma was paid but then angrily blurts out “Yeah, but she CHOSE to be used.”
The next segments of the interview put an even finer point on it: they show Norma seated in a cafe, saying “If a woman wants to have an abortion, fine, yeah. That’s no skin off my ass. You know that’s why they call it choice. It’s your choice.” They show her watching the returns for the 2016 election, talking about how Roe Versus Wade will never be overturned and how much she wants Hillary Clinton to be president. And then, talking of the preachers who converted her, “They’re a**holes. They all act like God sent them to preach the Gospel.”
The final scenes of the film show Reverend Flip Benham making a fool of himself preaching at Norma’s funeral, Frank Pavone bowing at nothing while officiating at her funeral since it doesn’t seem to be being held in a Catholic church with an altar, and flowers being removed from Norma’s coffin as she continues speaking in a voiceover. “Women have been having abortions for thousands of years. If it’s just the woman’s choice, and she chooses to have an abortion, then it should be safe. Roe versus Wade helped save women’s lives… It’s my mind. They can’t tell me what to think. And they damn sure can’t tell me what to do. That’s the name of that game.”
I’m including so many quotes from Norma and those who exploited her because it’s been suggested for the last couple of days that this documentary is fake news. People must have edited Norma’s words to make it sound like she was saying that; they must have tricked her for a gotcha interview or done something else shady to get such a surprise turnaround. But I don’t see how it’s possible. Except on the off-chance that producer and director Nick Sweeney found an extremely convincing body double to pretend to be Norma McCorvey and recite her lines, there’s no way he faked this. She did say the things she said, in answer to the questions she was asked.
Norma McCorvey was an actress, in a manner of speaking. She played one role or another her whole life. She was also an abused and exploited child who grew up to be an abused and exploited woman. She was then exploited by the pro-choice movement and, when it was handy, she was exploited by the pro-life movement in the same way: but by that time, she’d learned to exploit back. And she did so expertly. She was like any abused child who learns to abuse in turn– she manipulated as she was manipulated.
Norma McCorvey was a complex, tragic woman. She was not an honest woman. She lied, and she used people. But she was taught to be a woman who used people by years of exploitation and abuse. What’s everyone else’s excuse?
People often accuse me of being far too quick to criticize the pro-life movement–as if by being a Catholic committed to safeguarding human life from conception until natural death, I should feel pressured to stay silent when I see pro-lifers misbehaving for the sake of “the cause.” I see it the opposite way. I have a special duty to call out unacceptable behavior from people who claim they’re acting out of reverence for the sanctity of life. They’re the ones who are supposed to be the good guys. Their behavior ought to be above reproach.
But they weren’t.
Legal abortion came to exist in the United States through a poor, abused, traumatized woman who stumbled into the legal battle almost by happenstance and was exploited at every turn. The pro-life movement sought to reverse that chain of events, not by being better but by exploiting that same woman in the same way. Everyone, pro-life and pro-choice, exploited Norma McCorvey. Now she gets the last cynical laugh.
I pray that she’s found peace in the next life.
I do recommend that you give AKA Jane Roe a watch. It’s an adequate, eye-opening look at a particularly nasty piece of history that needs to be known.
There’s enough shame to go around for our whole country.
If only we were people who did not treat human beings as objects to be used.
Image via Pixabay
Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross.
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