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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

Pro-life critics say documentary’s Jane Roe bombshell is a dud

In this July 28, 2009, file photo, Norma McCorvey, right, the plaintiff in the landmark lawsuit Roe v. Wade, speaks with demonstrators inside House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's office on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

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.”

Bob Brown

Bob Brown

Bob is a movie reviewer for WORLD. He is a World Journalism Institute graduate and works as a math professor. Bob resides with his wife, Lisa, and five kids in Bel Air, Md. Follow him on Twitter @RightTwoLife.


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  • OldMike
    Posted: Thu, 05/21/2020 05:29 pm

    I think most of what is heard from the pro-abortionists has as its source the father of lies. And us humans have shown a willingness to be seduced and misled by that entity since the Garden of Eden. 

    But greater is He who is in us, than he who is in the world.

  • Neil Evans
    Posted: Thu, 05/21/2020 08:11 pm

    Opposition to abortion (or any other life value) should not be grounded in who is for or against it.  God's opinion is our standard.  We all, most likely, can be found changing our convictions over time.  Killing babies is wrong because God says it is, no matter who or how many oppose or support it.

    Posted: Fri, 05/22/2020 12:19 am

    Nothing I have read about this makes me think this report is a dud. Instead it has all the markings of serious sin in the camp that needs to be dealt with instead of belittled or covered over. Ms. McCorvey said it was all an act and that she did it for money. It is asserted that she received half a million dollars for promoting the Pro-Life movement. Even over several years, that's a lot of money. This documentary calls for deeper investigation to find out who was complicit in what looks very much like manipulation and deceit on the part of Pro-Life leaders. This article gives testimony from people who know her who say it is "impossible" with "zero chance of being true." But only God can make such blanket statements. The only other person who could come close to that certainty is Ms. McCorvey and she is saying that she did deceive. It is very possible that these people now defending her are some of those who were a part of the deception and so have everything to gain by defending her. And whether it happened on her deathbed or 9 months previously, the fact remains that she says she only pretended to have turned Pro-life and that others willingly helped her in her deception.

    You can't say that this report is a dud because she admitted her lies 9 months before her death, or because the half-million was spread across a number of years or because those possibly complicit are defending her with a surity they have no way of ascertaining.

    Nor is this story just about one person's sincerity, this is about the sincerity of many in leadership in the Pro-Life movement. No, it's not going to change my stance on abortion. But I am Pro-Truth as well as Pro-Life and that demands that I seek answers instead of belitting the questions that this unflattering, pro-abortion documentary brings up. 

    The evidence indicates that Ms. McCorvey was used to promote the Pro-Life cause because everyone likes a good story, and the woman behind Roe v. Wade becoming a Christian and Pro-Life is a great story and great stories bring in money. If so, this cannot be tolerated or ignored just because it makes us look bad. Maybe we were bad, and if we were, then we need to treat it like a call to repentance and not like a dud. Because when sin is left to fester in the camp, everyone suffers and, far worse, God is mocked.

  •  Jason Maas's picture
    Jason Maas
    Posted: Sat, 05/23/2020 01:35 pm

    It wouldn't be the first time that mistakes were made when putting a former pro-abortion person into the pro-life spotlight:

  • Big Jim
    Posted: Fri, 05/22/2020 02:38 am

    What Neil Evans said.