A Personal Tragedy

Watching AKA Jane Roe, the new FX documentary by Nick Sweeney (on FX and FX on Hulu), the only thing I felt for Norma McCorvey was sadness. She claims to have been used, willingly, by both sides of the American abortion debate. Those who are interviewed confirm, sometimes with hesitation, those claims.

At one point, McCorvey says she was paid by Operation Rescue and others and told what to say. The filmmakers show McCorvey’s recorded statement to, on the one hand, Charlotte Taft (an abortion counselor) and Gloria Allred (the attorney who represented McCorvey after Roe v. Wade) and, on the other, to Rob Schenck (an Evangelical pastor who founded the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Institute). All three of them express sadness, betrayal, and shock. While they ask Flip Benham (leader of Operation Save America [the successor to Operation Rescue]) to comment, it doesn’t appear that they show him the same video, for some reason.

That is the climax of a story that stretches from her early life with an alcoholic mother; to her same-sex relationships; to having her first child taken and adopted against her will; to 1968, when McCorvey was recruited to be the plaintiff in a case to legalize abortion, which culminated in the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision; to McCorvey’s admission that she had lied about a rape resulting in the pregnancy that was the catalyst for Roe v. Wade; to her continued activism and work in abortion clinics in Texas; to her conversion and baptism in 1994-95; to her work with Operation Rescue and other pro-life groups. Her conversion to Roman Catholicism happened in 1998, but that isn’t very clear in the film.

The abortion advocates are sure that she was manipulated from the very beginning by the pro-life activists, and even Rev. Schenck says they “played” McCorvey for their own purposes. But Schenck himself has apparently had a change of heart, and regrets his involvement with Benham and others. I think that some of the tactics used by Operation Rescue are extreme and, for that matter, counter-productive (particularly, when they are harassing people entering clinics and yelling “Baby killer!” and “Murderer!”). If Schenck were repudiating that kind of behavior, I could sympathize. But he seems to have become much more “pro-choice,” almost mirroring in reverse McCorvey’s conversion to the pro-life side.

I have much more sympathy for McCorvey, even if her initial activism was because she wanted a place in the spotlight and then, when that was denied her, she welcomed the spotlight from the other side. In spite of what she says at the end, she is credible and convincing when she is interviewed and asked by, for example, Ted Koppel, about the sincerity of her motivations. She says that no one made her do anything, and that she isn’t the sort to be manipulated

She reverses that in the end, claiming that she was manipulated and used, albeit—maybe—with her consent, and maybe for the money. It’s probably impossible to know which of her positions were genuine, or whether all of them were at the times she held them.

Expedience and celebrity make for a destructive combination. In the end—though there are hints of it throughout—Norma McCorvey seems to have been about what was good for her in the moment. It’s hard to believe that someone could be so callous to the effects of her actions, to the legal chaos and cultural upheaval in which she played a large part. Though I have no doubt that Sarah Weddington and Linda Coffee would have found another young, poor, pregnant woman to be the face of their lawsuit, it was Norma McCorvey whom they used, but whom the movement sidelined in favor of movie stars and celebrities. And Operation Rescue would have continued their fight, whether or not McCorvey had joined them. To what extent was McCorvey voluntarily involved in either side of the fight? On that point, she seems to vacillate, even into contradiction, between being used and knowing exactly what she was doing, on her own and for herself. That’s not something the film is able to clarify.

For all of the players in the five-decade drama, with McCorvey at the center, celebrity seems fraught with personal and moral danger. Combine that with expedience and a need for validation and acceptance, and the danger is compounded. Regardless of the side on which one stands, this documentary doesn’t provide any opportunities for triumphalism.

But in addition to that, there is a lesson here for those who are pro-life, and especially for those who are Christians: celebrity is a double-edged sword. It may bring attention to a cause, but that attention will not necessarily be positive. Consider the number of Christian “celebrities” who have recently and publicly rejected Christianity. Or on the other hand, consider the response to people like Kanye West when they publicly convert to Christianity. Has it ever been the case that a celebrity’s conversion has actually influenced other conversions, or does it simply become ammunition for the partisans of the cause?

Far more likely is a rush to claim this or that person as trophy for the side, and a skepticism that is attached to public conversions, regardless of the direction in which they go. When it comes to Christianity, the judgment on one’s conversion is reserved for no one but that person’s Lord. Celebrity, skepticism, and criticism are beside the point.

And if the cause is righteous, the celebrity (or lack thereof) of its proponents is irrelevant. Norma McCorvey’s changes of position—whether sincere or not—do not change whether Roe v. Wade or Doe v. Bolton or any other claim or legal precedent are good, beneficial, or right. She played her polarizing part; she often took the brunt of anger and bitterness on the part of her various enemies; she used and was used. In the end, AKA Jane Roe feels like a personal tragedy at the heart of a national one.