Estimated read time: 8 minutes.
You’ve likely heard about the documentary that premiered on FX, AKA Jane Roe, claiming to offer the true story of Norma McCorvey, the “Jane Roe” in Roe v. Wade. Pro-life and pro-choice people are interested in this story, regardless of how relevant it actually is (or should be) to our beliefs about abortion. Even if it feels off-topic, we need to be prepared to talk about this, and shifting to another topic too quickly will likely hurt your conversations about abortion.
I’m explaining our main thoughts below but feel free to use these links if you’d prefer to watch or listen to our discussion on the documentary that covers all of the points below, albeit in more detail.
Why does this matter, especially if our views on abortion shouldn’t be influenced by whether Roe was pro-choice or pro-life? The question this documentary poses isn’t what people should believe about abortion, but rather whether the pro-life movement is corrupt. We then need to answer whether it contains an accurate depiction of the modern pro-life movement.
It would be convenient if this film was deceptively edited to the point that we didn’t need to seriously consider its claims (like the editing practices Josh covered in his videos about Netflix’s “Reversing Roe”), but that doesn’t seem to be the case. Certainly, the movie is incredibly biased, and there’s some evidence that the filmmaker lied about his bias in order to gain access to McCorvey. Still, the underhandedness on display doesn’t invalidate all of the claims presented in AKA Jane Roe, and it seems most plausible that what Norma said in the movie was, at least to a large degree, representative of how she felt.
Again, we don’t agree with the sentiment in some pro-life tweets that we don’t need to pay attention to this documentary because of its pro-choice bias. If that were true, we shouldn’t expect pro-choice people to pay attention to pro-life films such as Unplanned or Gosnell, since they are biased in favor of the pro-life side (and while we believe that bias to be true, it is a bias all the same).
There were a couple major examples of bias. First, and most crucially, the pro-life movement is painted as almost inherently violent through B-roll of actual anti-abortion violence and the description of protestors as “terrorists” by a pro-abortion worker. While “domestic terrorism” is an appropriate term to describe acts of violence against abortion workers and their facilities, it is certainly not a fair representation of how pro-life people are, or even how they were then on the whole; peaceful sidewalk counseling has outgrown protests and demonstrations, and the pro-life movement is committed to non-violence. That said, the inclusion of the buckshot fired at Norma’s door is completely fair, since that would be a major part of anyone’s life story, and the ostensible goal of the movie was to tell her story.
The inclusion of only one pro-life group (Operation Rescue) also lets the filmmakers color the portrayal of the pro-life movement by pretending that one particularly extreme part of it represents the whole. Because McCorvey had significant involvement with the group, it makes sense for them to feature prominently, but it was also very convenient for the desired narrative to minimize Norma’s connection to other groups or to omit situating Operation Rescue within the pro-life movement as a whole.
On the other hand, when it came to Norma’s many controversial statements in the documentary, Josh couldn’t find any evidence of deceptive editing. The quotes were taken from multiple interview days in various locations (even if some were prompted by leading questions). Frank Pavone, head of Priests for Life, who was shown briefly in the film, commented that “[e]verything she said, I have heard her say before.” It is plausible that any quotes tending toward views that would be considered pro-life were left on the cutting room floor, but we don’t have reason at this point to doubt the reality of the quotes that made it into the film.
Given this, what’s the most plausible explanation of what McCorvey actually believed? After all, she asserted multiple contradictory or seemingly contradictory things to many people in public and private over the course of 30-plus years. In order to answer that, we need to look at two plausible motivations for why someone would say something in public that they don’t really mean: financial and emotional (attention/acceptance/fame). We think that both likely applied for Norma, each to a different extent.
It’s true that Norma made money as a pro-life activist (it’s unclear from the documentary whether she was compensated during her pro-choice media blitz). The movie tried to aggregate a $500k figure for her non-profit’s income as if it was brought in over a few years, but it seems to have come in over a much longer time period, and as far as we can tell from looking at the three 990’s available on Guidestar, Norma drew a salary between $11-$26k each year—hardly an outrageous amount. Similarly, it attempts to paint the “benevolence gifts” as under-the-table bribes, but donations between non-profits and speaking fees/honoraria are commonplace throughout the non-profit world. (And if drawing a salary as an activist makes you untrustworthy, then why are you reading this article? We’d be untrustworthy by that rule, since we’re supported by many churches and individuals so we can devote ourselves to pro-life work.)
Of course, this cuts both ways. If money makes her untrustworthy, then we shouldn’t believe what she said in the documentary or as an activist, because she received compensation for cooperating with both. (The documentary director claims that he didn’t pay McCorvey for the interview but that he did pay to license her pictures. We’re guessing that was a distinction without a difference to her.) On the other hand, if we think it’s silly to say she was “bought off” by a meager salary as a pro-life speaker, then we shouldn’t dismiss McCorvey’s claims in the movie because she received compensation for participating).
While money likely played some part, it seems probable that the acceptance and acclaim Norma received when she switched to the pro-life side provides more of an explanation for why she was willing to say things she didn’t necessarily agree with, especially given the context of her traumatic background. For the most part, the pro-choice people ignored her except as a bare symbol (a “trophy”, if you will). They didn’t want her to speak, and they were quick to feel like she was betraying women when she left their ranks. The pro-life people, who were initially overtly hostile to her, were willing to hang on every word when she became “one of them.” She was offered the opportunity to speak, to be famous, and to receive adulation, even during unpaid events. Indeed, this provides a more realistic answer for why Norma would participate in prayer vigils and other pro-life activities with no stipend forthcoming. Pro-life people were understandably excited for her, specifically, to be there.
Especially important to Norma was the offer of acceptance in Jesus Christ. Even though she abused substances, spoke crass language, and probably never adopted the pro-life position fully, she seemed to genuinely profess faith in Christ. To this end, the documentary shows that Norma ceased intimate relations with her female partner, believing that such was contrary to the faith she had accepted, which was no small thing for her to do (whether or not you agree with it).
But even as a pro-life speaker, she didn’t follow the pro-life line. She, more or less openly, supported the availability of first-trimester abortions, even if she had personal reservations. She seemed to do genuine work to overturn Roe, but sometimes stated that her change in stance was for herself (as opposed to what you might expect: saying it was for the babies). And even people who knew this considered her to be “pro-life.”
It’s here that our simplistic labels fail us. What does it mean to be “pro-life?” Is it that you support efforts to overturn Roe? Is it that you wouldn’t personally get an abortion? Is it that you believe that human life should be protected by right from conception, meaning unjustified taking of that life is a grave evil? There’s good evidence that, by the first possible definition, McCorvey was pro-life; but that doesn’t seem like the right definition. Rather, she seems a paradigmatic example of the classic pro-choice position: she supported reforming and restraining abortions, but believed they should be available for others in at least some circumstances.
If Norma was “personally pro-life” and functionally pro-choice, how could she have functioned as a pro-life speaker for so long? She simply acted more pro-life than she was, because she and the pro-life people could support a common goal (overturning Roe). People in the pro-life movement who knew her views were willing to keep quiet because she brought media firepower to their efforts, and she was willing to say more than she believed because the pro-life people met her needs in a way that the pro-choice people didn’t (if this documentary is to be believed at all). She likely became less pro-choice after her conversion to Christianity, but never became truly pro-life.
We think most pro-life people who heard McCorvey’s story truly believed that she was completely pro-life based on the speeches she gave, and the fact that she was welcomed into the movement with so much love and acceptance says something beautiful about our movement. Some of you reading this truly showed the love of Christ to her, and she was much better off for it.
Note: We have to pick an “author” on each post but the content here is really a team effort of primarily Rachel Crawford, Andrew Kaake, and myself.