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Norma McCorvey, Victim & Grifter

Norma McCorvey makes self-described 'deathbed confession' (Screenshot from FX film 'AKA Jane Roe')

If this is true, it’s awful:

Norma McCorvey, the woman known as “Jane Roe” in the landmark 1973 U.S. Supreme Court Roe v. Wade ruling legalizing abortion, said she was lying when she switched to support the anti-abortion movement, saying she had been paid to do so.

In a new documentary, made before her death in 2017 and due to be broadcast on Friday, McCorvey makes what she calls a “deathbed confession.”

“I took their money and they took me out in front of the cameras and told me what to say,” she says on camera. “I did it well too. I am a good actress. Of course, I’m not acting now.”

“If a young woman wants to have an abortion, that’s no skin off my ass. That’s why they call it choice,” she added.

“AKA Jane Roe,” will be broadcast on the FX cable channel on Friday but was made available to television journalists in advance.

Is it true? Unless there are people from the pro-life side who did this, and who can confirm it, I guess we will never know for sure. The Reuters story (linked above) quotes an Evangelical pastor saying that the pro-life movement exploited McCorvey. He does not say that it was a conscious conspiracy, though — at least the Reuters story does not indicate that. Having not seen the FX program, I can easily imagine that professional pro-life activists saw McCorvey as a “get,” and treated her instrumentally. It was clear in the interviews she did after she came out as “Roe” that she had been beat up pretty badly by life, and might not be the most stable person. Her Wikipedia entry talks about how she was raised by a mother who was a violent alcoholic. Hers was a hard life.

Note well, though, that the pro-choice side will now instrumentalize her posthumously, not blaming her for pimping out her credibility to damage the pro-choice cause. She will be presented as a total innocent who was iniquitously exploited by pro-lifers.

Still, it would not surprise me to learn that some pro-life leaders treated her poorly. This is how political activists can be. They learn to see the world entirely through the lens of their cause, and whether they mean to or not, come to judge people by how useful they are to the cause.

I remember being a reporter on Capitol Hill during some hearings in the early 1990s on partial-birth abortion. One pro-life activist with whom I was personally familiar knew that I was a pro-life Catholic, and sympathetic to the cause. In the House hearing room, before testimony started, she ran up to me with a plastic model of an unborn baby, put it in my face, and shoved a small pair of medical scissors into the back of its neck. She was demonstrating what partial-birth abortion does. I told her to get out of my face. She seemed shocked by that. It wasn’t that I disagreed with her position — I did not, and she knew that I did not. It was that she was so worked up by the horror of partial-birth abortion that she had lost perspective on how to behave there in the committee room. The righteousness of the cause overwhelmed her.

I’ve seen this kind of thing in all kinds of activists, left and right, over the years. Again, it is possible that some pro-life leaders coldly chose to exploit McCorvey. Again, I think it more likely that it was unconscious. That doesn’t make it right, but I think this kind of thing is common in the world of political activism. I do know, though, of one pretty hardcore pro-life activist, a Christian who had no scruples about deceiving pregnant women about his crisis pregnancy centers. Other CPC workers distanced themselves from him, because they knew he was dishonest, and they were afraid that he would hurt the reputations of all CPCs. This guy believed that the cause justified anything. Eventually he got in trouble over his deceit.

I wonder, though — and maybe the FX show gets into this — what McCorvey expected from the pro-life movement, and what she had a right to expect. Did she want all her bills paid? Did she want a permanent job? What? Was McCorvey ever a real pro-lifer? Her Wikipedia entry reveals that she has a history of lying about things related to abortion. Did McCorvey change her mind about abortion near the end of her life, and decided to distance herself from her pro-life activism by inventing an allegation against her former allies?

McCorvey was an unreliable narrator — but the pro-life movement ought to have known this when it embraced her. Her life and testimony were an unstable foundation on which to base activism. Pro-choicers eager to embrace her posthumously, on the basis of her “deathbed confession,” should be wary. They won’t be, because the narrative that McCorvey provided the filmmakers fits what the media want to believe about abortion and the pro-life movement.

Still, there probably are some important lessons for pro-lifers to learn from the sad, confused life of Norma McCorvey. I had forgottten, until I read it on the Wikipedia page, that Operation Rescue leader Flip Benham had McCorvey’s backyard 1994 baptism filmed for a TV show. That right there shows bad faith: something as intimate as a baptism ought not to be fodder for activism.

McCorvey later returned to the Catholicism of her childhood, and was confirmed as a Catholic by Father Frank Pavone, the pro-life activist priest. Pavone, who has himself arguably gone too far in his own pro-life activism, spoke to Catholic journalist J.D. Flynn about the new McCorvey claims. Excerpts:

As to charges that McCorvey was used by the pro-life movement, Pavone said that from his perspective, “I’ve never subscribed to the idea that the pro-life movement used her.”

The priest conceded, however, that “one would have to say that, as in any movement, when there’s a convert, you’ve got to be careful not to put them into the lights and the cameras before they’ve had the healing that they need.”

McCorvey was often thrust into situations for which she wasn’t ready, he said, as she also had been during her alliance with abortion advocates, and that caused her considerable hardship.

Pavone says that McCorvey had trouble paying the bills over the years. He adds:

Pavone said that in his view, McCorvey struggled in her final years, especially after a move from Dallas to Katy, Texas.

“In that final year, she was outside of the support network that a lot of her friends were providing in Dallas,” he said.

You could say: outside of that support network, Norma lost perspective, and became embittered at her pro-life allies.

You could also say: outside of that support network, Norma finally saw the truth, and admitted it.

Only Norma McCorvey knew the real truth. Or did she?

Just this morning I was talking with a friend about someone we know who had a traumatic childhood, and whose accounts — even contemporary stories — about others are unreliable, because this person, X., has a habit of rewriting the past in ways X. requires to feel okay in the world. Like McCorvey, X. was raised by a violent alcoholic parent. I was telling my friend that if X. were hooked up to a lie detector and told a story that was provably false, X. would probably pass with flying colors because in my experience, truth, to this tormented soul, is whatever helps X. sleep at night.

Was it like that with Norma McCorvey? I bet it was. Childhood trauma is a hell of a thing. I don’t say that to take moral agency away from McCorvey, or to run interference for pro-life activists who may have taken advantage of her. I do think, though, that the story of her life is not redemptive, any way you look at it. She presented herself as a pro-life advocate from 1994 until her 2017 death. If she lied to the world about her true abortion beliefs for nearly a quarter-century, and only told the truth when she knew nobody could hold her accountable for it (that is, for a film she knew she would never live to see released), then that is disgraceful.

I’ll leave you with this. Washington Post writer Monica Hesse says that the messiness of McCorvey’s life doesn’t suit either the pro-life or pro-choice narrative. Excerpt:

The activists on both sides who knew her found her charming and found her maddening. She rewrote stories into fantasies. She could be mercenary, and always needed money. Maybe the best word for her was “survivor,” multiple people decided independently. After a rough life, she’d now do whatever it took to survive. At one point in the FX documentary, she chuckles that she’s always “looking out for Norma’s salvation and Norma’s [butt].” At times, she seemed to be exactly what their movements needed. At times, she seemed hellbent on complicating an issue that they found to be absolutely simple and clear.

This made her the perfect Jane Roe, the perfect figurehead of the abortion issue, because it wasn’t simple for a lot of people. Antiabortion activists with accidental pregnancies suddenly find themselves calling Planned Parenthood, convinced that their situations are exceptional. Pro-choice women who terminate pregnancies can move through unexpected grief. At various points in her life, Norma McCorvey represented the issue in all of its complexities and untidiness.

This also made McCorvey a difficult Jane Roe, because movements want their heroes to be pure.

Sounds like she was both a victim and a grifter. Both can be true at the same time.

Here, by the way, is the trailer for the FX documentary:

UPDATE: Good comment from reader Hosanna:

I found this Vanity Fair article from 2013 about McCorvey helpful for having a greater context about her life and person: https://www.vanityfair.com/news/politics/2013/02/norma-mccorvey-roe-v-wade-abortion

This article confirms that McCorvey did receive money for her activism – and, indeed, that one constant theme of her life is that she was always fixated on making money from her centrality in Roe v. Wade. (“She just fishes for money,” the pro-life pastor Benham is quoted as saying.) This was true both in her pro-choice activism days and her pro-life activism days. Given her continual struggles with poverty, I’m not sure she ever saw a path to survival for herself that didn’t involve exploiting Roe v. Wade in one way or another. Note that the Vanity Fair author mentions that he tried to schedule an interview with McCorvey, but that she refused to speak without a $1000 interview fee. McCorvey was almost certainly paid for her participation in this new documentary; was she just saying what she thought the documentary filmmaker wanted to hear, as she said what pro-choice and pro-life activists wanted to hear?

Ultimately, despite the framing the reporting about this documentary is leaning into, I don’t think the story is that cynical pro-life activists knowingly bribed McCorvey to lie. Rather, it’s that McCorvey was a messy woman who sought to make a living from her accidental centrality to a major societal controversy, and pro-choice and pro-life activists alike tried to overlook her messiness in using her as a symbol for the righteousness of their cause. My takeaway is to be wary of using personal stories as arguments – they’re very powerful on an emotional level, but the messiness of reality tends to get sanded off in service of the grand narrative we want to tell. As a servant of the God of truth, a God who thankfully shows grace even to messy people, I want to be faithful to truth – not what I wish the truth was, but truth as it actually is. Only by facing the truth about my own continual mess can I be receptive to God’s grace, and so I must face the truth about other people’s messes in order to be a true minister of God’s grace to them.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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