AKA Jane Roe is the illuminating documentary of Norma McCorvey, also known as Jane Roe, the plaintiff of the 1973 landmark case Roe v. Wade that legalized abortion. The documentary, aired by FX on May 22, is a chronicle of McCorvey’s life that culminates in a shocking confession. McCorvey was actually paid by anti-abortionists to switch her stance on abortion.
According to creator Nick Sweeney, he didn’t know McCorvey would deliver such a surprising admission. He was purely interested in learning more about McCorvey and her life.
Norma Nelson was 10 years old when she robbed a gas station and ran away from her home from Texas to Oklahoma City with a female friend, only to be caught by a hotel maid who found the two girls kissing. After attending an all girls school on and off for five years, she was sent to live with her mother’s cousin where she was subjected to frequent sexual abuse. At 16, she was briefly married to 22-year-old Woody McCorvey and gave birth to her first child Melissa, who was given up for adoption. The two separated prior to Melissa’s birth.
In 1969, McCorvey became pregnant with the child who would become the center of the abortion debate. She did not have the money or the connections to obtain an abortion herself, so she was referred to lawyers who were looking for women seeking abortions. They asked her to be the plaintiff, under the pseudonym “Jane Roe,” in a case challenging Texas abortion laws.
Roe v. Wade eventually made its way up to the Supreme Court, and after much opposition, led to abortion legalization across all fifty states. But McCorvey’s story doesn’t end there. In a striking confession in the late 80s, McCorvey revealed that the pregnancy at the center of the case was not a result of rape like she previously claimed. In the early 90s, McCorvey delivered another shocking statement. Following a publicly aired baptism, she converted to Christianity and turned against abortion.
AKA Jane Roe features a diverse ensemble on both sides of the abortion debate, featuring interviews with both abortion rights and anti-abortion activists. The documentary also features clips of McCorvey both around the time of Roe v. Wade and in the time leading up to her death in 2017. Interviewees include abortion counselor, Charlotte Taft and Reverand Flip Benham, director of the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue that McCorvey worked with when she flipped stances. Another interesting interviewee is Reverand Rob Schenck, who was initially anti-abortion around the time of the trial but has since flipped his stance.
Norma McCorvey’s life was complex and difficult. Despite being the plaintiff of Roe v. Wade, she was never able to obtain an abortion. McCorvey dealt with drug and alcohol abuse and financial hardship for much of her life. During the trial McCorvey began a romantic relationship with a woman, Connie Gonzalez, and the two lived together for 35 years. But when McCorvey converted to Christianity, Operation Rescue told her certain aspects of her lifestyle couldn’t continue. Namely, she could longer be a lesbian. McCorvey and Gonzalez ended their relationship, but continued to live together until Gonzalez suffered a stroke in 2006.
In the end, McCorvey received almost $450,000 during her years as an anti-abortion activist. But the documentary isn’t about which side is right. AKA Jane Roe is a deeply emotional portrait of Norma McCorvey and of American history. McCorvey was funny, sassy and candid. Once, she even dreamed of being a movie star. But, McCorvey was ultimately a victim of her circumstances. She was abused by both sides of the movement that took advantage of a young pregnant woman in dire need of money and assistance. In an interview, she recounts how the lawyers she first met with had the resources to find her an abortion, but didn’t. She lost her romantic partner and was frequently mistrusted by both sides of the debate. She was thrust into the public eye for an issue she never even wanted to advocate on behalf of others for.
The movie serves a greater role as a testament to the way people are exploited for political gain. How often are marginalized communities exploited by those with power, only to be overlooked once those people get what they want? Henrietta Lacks was a poor black woman whose cells became vital to many huge scientific discoveries, but history has largely overlooked her as a person. Her immortal human cells were taken without the consent of Lacks or her family, and until recent years, the family never saw any compensation (despite the fact that her cells are bought and sold around the world).
Abortion is no different. It disproportionately affects certain communities. Taking away the right to safe, accessible abortion services has nothing to do with caring about the women involved, or the future of their unborn children. It only further drives women to take drastic measures to seek dangerous and riskier options. Norma McCorvey dealt with poverty, drug abuse, homophobia and mental health issues throughout her life. She was exploited for wanting better. But, rather than using McCorvey to explicitly push an agenda like others did, AKA Jane Row leaves the audience to contemplate their own beliefs as they watch an intimate record of McCorvey’s life.
In one of the documentary’s final scenes, Norma is asked about her views on abortion now. She delivers a defiant statement: Roe cannot be tampered with.
I would implore everyone to watch this documentary. McCorvey’s story should not be forgotten or reduced down to a couple of sentences in a history textbook. She was a real person and part of a movement larger than one person. Her narrative is important. AKA Jane Row is a timeless lesson about exploitation that should not be ignored. If we want to strive to create a better society, it should not be done by manipulating those who are vulnerable. Abortion is just one issue, but the message of AKA Jane Row is applicable to all: the truth will come out.
Thumbnail image licensed with permission from Wikimedia Commons. [[File:Norma McCorvey (Jane Roe), 1989.jpg|thumb|Norma McCorvey (Jane Roe), 1989]].