The plaintiff in the landmark supreme court case revealed she was paid to change her mind about abortion. Have anti-abortion activists no shame?
Thanks to her newly public deathbed confession, we now know that’s what Norma McCorvey, best known for being the plaintiff known as Jane Roe in the 1973 landmark supreme court case abortion rights case Roe v Wade, did.
In 1969, a 22-year-old McCorvey was pregnant and scared. She’d had a difficult childhood, allegedly suffering sexual abuse from a family member. She’d been married at 16 but had left her husband. She had addiction issues. She’d had two children already and placed them for adoption. She was depressed. She was desperate for a safe and legal abortion. Texas, however, wouldn’t give her one. So she challenged the state laws and her case eventually went before the US supreme court, legalizing abortion across America.
After becoming the poster girl of the pro-choice movement, McCorvey performed a very public about-face in the 1990s. She found religion, ended the romantic relationship with her girlfriend, and became a vocal anti-abortion crusader.
As it turns out, it wasn’t God himself directing this new path. It was leaders from the evangelical Christian right. McCorvey, who died in 2017, delivers this confession in a new FX documentary, AKA Jane Roe, out on Friday. According to the documentary, McCorvey received at least $456,911 in “benevolent gifts” from the anti-abortion movement in exchange for her “conversion”.
“I was the big fish,” McCorvey says in the documentary. “I think it was a mutual thing. I took their money and they’d put me out in front of the cameras and tell me what to say. It was all an act. I did it well, too. I am a good actress. Of course, I’m not acting now.”
The Rev Flip Benham, one of the evangelical leaders featured in the documentary, apparently has no moral qualms about how McCorvey, who was clearly vulnerable, was used. “She chose to be used,” he says. “That’s called work. That’s what you’re paid to be doing!” Ah yes, I remember reading that in the Bible: thou shalt pay others to cravenly lie.
The Rev Rob Schenck, another of the evangelical leaders featured, is rather more thoughtful. “For Christians like me, there is no more important or authoritative voice than Jesus,” he says. “And he said, ‘What does it profit in the end if he should gain the whole world and lose his soul?’ When you do what we did to Norma, you lose your soul.”
Sadly, it seems as though many anti-abortion extremists don’t have much of a soul to lose in the first place. While the right claims to stand for morality and family values they – as AKA Jane Roe makes very clear – are more than happy to lie and cheat in order to propagate their fringe beliefs. As Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted: “It turns out a huge part of the anti-choice movement was a scam the entire time.” Most Americans have moderate views when it comes to abortion; according to a 2017 Pew study, 69% of Americans don’t think Roe v Wade should be overturned. However, a small but powerful group of extremists are doing everything they can to roll back women’s rights.
Of course, McCorvey, as she admits herself, is not exactly an innocent victim in all this. Her reversal on reproductive rights was national news in the 1990s, and dealt a blow to the pro-choice movement. But, at the end of the day, McCorvey never really set out to be a pro-choice activist. She was a desperate woman battling for the right to have control of her own body; along the way she loaned her name to a bigger fight. McCorvey taking money to lie obviously isn’t something she should be applauded for, but the real villains in this story are the hypocrites who preyed on a vulnerable woman in the name of “family values”.
- Arwa Mahdawi is a Guardian US columnist