“In February 1970 I was Norma McCorvey, a pregnant street person, a twenty-one-year-old woman in big trouble,” writes McCorvey in her 1994 memoir I Am Roe. “I became Jane Roe at a corner table at Columbo’s, an Italian restaurant at Mockingbird Lane and Greenville Avenue in Dallas.”
That short meeting with Sarah Weddington and Linda Coffee, two lawyers looking for the right case to strike a blow on behalf of abortion rights, would transform McCorvey’s life. The following month, Weddington and Coffee filed a lawsuit against Dallas district attorney Henry Wade for enforcing Texas’s abortion law and used McCorvey as their lead plaintiff. The case ended up at the United States Supreme Court, and on January 22, 1973, the justices overturned the law 7-2 and legalized abortion in all fifty states.
On that day, Norma McCorvey became Jane Roe of Roe v. Wade—part symbol, part person, trapped in the maelstrom of history and the sound and fury of America’s abortion wars. When she left the abortion industry for the pro-life movement in 1994, she made headlines across the nation.
Now again, McCorvey is making headlines as the bombshell subject of a new FX documentary, AKA Jane Roe, which claims that she changed her mind a third time and reverted back to a pro-abortion position. Producer Nick Sweeney tells a story in which McCorvey’s relationship with the pro-life movement was strictly a financial one.
In a series of interviews that she dubbed her “deathbed confession,” McCorvey calls it all an “act.”
“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.”
Numerous headlines have suggested that McCorvey was “paid to change her mind” on abortion, despite the fact that those are not actually her words. In trying to unearth the real narrative, I spoke with many of her close friends, three of whom went on the record. Those three, in addition to others, reject the idea that she was bribed into switching sides. Their story of McCorvey and their relationship with her is much more complex, intimate, and humane.
“For this new documentary to quote Norma saying she was not genuinely pro-life is very suspicious,” said Father Frank Pavone, director of Priests for Life. “I knew Norma. Her pro-life convictions were not an act.”
Pavone was part of McCorvey’s faith story. As she described in her second memoir, Won By Love, her relationship with various pro-lifers led to her to Christianity and also to the pro-life movement. On August 8, 1995, she was baptized in a backyard swimming pool in Dallas, Texas. In 1998, she became a Roman Catholic and adopted Pavone as her spiritual director. (His organization recently released its own statement on the Sweeney documentary.)
During this time, McCorvey spoke at numerous pro-life events and publicly expressed remorse for her role in the legalization of abortion. In 2004, she even sought to have the Supreme Court overturn Roe v. Wade based on new evidence that abortion hurts women. (The case was dismissed the following year.)
Was McCorvey bribed for her contributions to the movement? Sweeney’s evidence for this claim—that over the decades, McCorvey had been paid at least $456,911 in gifts—supports an opposite conclusion, in my opinion. The figure is not a high one, considering that some pro-life speakers often earn upwards of $10,000 for a single speaking engagement. And being paid to advocate for a position is not the same thing as being paid to change your mind. More importantly, my sources suggest that these monetary contributions were primarily given not for coercive purposes but for supportive ones. McCorvey’s pro-life friends cared deeply for her and often helped her financially when she was in need.
“She’d begun speaking at banquets and giving her testimony with the help of Ronda Mackey and the Operation Rescue team [a pro-life organization founded in 1986], but the travel soon became too strenuous for her, as it caused her anxiety,” said Karen Garnett, one of McCorvey’s close friends. “Father Edward Robinson suggested to the board of directors of the Catholic Pro-Life Committee of North Texas, of which I was executive director, that we consider adopting Roe No More Ministry [McCorvey’s project] as one of the pro-life agencies we donated to, to help Norma pay the bills to keep her office going, even if mostly electronically. It was agreed, and a monthly donation to her ministry began and continued through the years, purely out of love and support for our dear sister and friend.”
According to my sources, McCorvey frequently lived with her friends in the pro-life community over the years when she needed a place to stay. In the early 2000s, she lived for several months with Troy Newman, one of the participants in Operation Rescue, near Wichita, Kansas. Newman remembers her as a funny, down-to-earth friend who “loved children and adored my own five children.” They had many heart-to-heart conversations, and he vividly recalled one New Year’s Eve where Norma and his family and friends went to a pub and grill.
On the drive home, McCorvey grew very quiet. “What’s wrong, Norma?” Newman asked her. “It’s January,” she replied softly. “Both of us knew immediately what that meant,” Newman told me. It meant the anniversary of Roe v. Wade was near, and with it came a renewal of the guilt McCorvey carried with her.
Bryan Kemper, the youth outreach director of Priests for Life, remembers similar conversations with McCorvey. He recalls one in particular that happened while sitting in a church parking lot with her while they were both smoking cigarettes. She told him about the crushing guilt that would sweep over her when she would sit across an empty playground. She would weep and wonder if it was empty because the children that could be playing there had been killed by abortion. In response, he reminded her that grace and forgiveness could be found in God. “She was always such a blessing to talk to and hang out with,” he told me. “She was a friend, and someone who I know loved God and wanted to see an end to abortion.”
What about one of the most damning accusations leveled by the media in the wake of AKA Jane Roe—that the pro-life movement “used” McCorvey? If that is true, several pro-lifers told me, it was “not done cynically or intentionally,” said one source. Unfortunately, but perhaps inevitably, many people looked at McCorvey and saw Jane Roe the symbol rather than Norma McCorvey, a complex woman with a pain-filled past. The simple story of Jane Roe going to war with the industry she once served was both powerful and irresistible, and in their zeal to overturn Roe v. Wade and save lives from abortion, some pro-life advocates easily overlooked the fact that the real Norma McCorvey couldn’t easily fill this symbolic role. But that certainly wasn’t the case for everyone.
“I know she felt that there were people who used her because they saw her more as Jane Roe than as Miss Norma,” Newman told me. “But to me, she was always Miss Norma. She was my friend, and I loved her. She was the Rosa Parks of the pro-life movement, and it was our responsibility to take care of her. It was our privilege to do so.”
Karen Garnett, who shared a 22-year friendship with McCorvey that the two dubbed a “sisterhood,” has a similar but slightly different view of this part of the story. She hadn’t heard that her friend felt “used” by the pro-life movement until McCorvey’s biographer Joshua Prager told her so.
“In our conversation, he shared that through his hundreds of hours of time spent with Norma over the previous four years, he believed Norma felt that she had been ‘used and exploited’ by both sides of the abortion debate,” said Garnett. “That was a surprise to me, because in the 22 years that I had known Norma, she had never expressed to me that she’d felt used and exploited by people in the pro-life movement.”
Nonetheless, Garnett wanted to respond before it was too late.
At the time of Prager’s revelation to Garnett, McCorvey had been in and out of the hospital and was nearing death. On the morning of February 13, 2017, her daughter called Garnett to let her know that McCorvey had been admitted to ICU and intubated. They weren’t sure if she would make it, so they asked Garnett to come. McCorvey was sedated through the night. The following evening, however, “she was able to talk to me for the first time after coming off the breathing machine, and she said ‘Hi Baby’ three times,” Garnett said. “It was very heart-warming.”
“She was awake and alert, and as I was standing on one side of her bed, with her daughter and granddaughter standing across on the other side of her bed, I told her, and them, that I wanted to apologize to her and ask for her forgiveness for anyone in the pro-life movement who had ever hurt her or caused her to feel hurt or pain,” Garnett said. “I shared that publicly as well during the eulogy at her funeral on February 25, 2017 after she’d passed on the morning of February 18th.”
In her apology, Garnett did something deeply Christian: She recognized McCorvey’s vulnerability and asked forgiveness for any sins committed against her. This moment of apology is not depicted in the documentary, even by vague description. But from where I sit, it might be the most important moment to ponder. As a pro-life advocate, I’m left asking: How can we as a movement continue to soul-search ourselves and our collective actions?
As Matthew Lee Anderson writes, our movement is “animated by the gospel of Jesus Christ.” Accordingly, “The truth of compassion provides comfort in the face of the cross—a comfort that defeats death not by inflicting it, but by overcoming it with love.”
In the midst of our movement’s failures and successes, we, like Garnett, are invited to be Christ’s voice of love to the vulnerable. We share a high calling—to admit our failures, eschew vice and deception, embrace virtue, and embody Christian ethics as we seek to protect the unborn and those who carry them. The people we serve include the McCorveys of the world, and protecting their humanity is part of that high calling. In so doing, we model the sanctity of life from “womb to tomb,” as the saying goes.
McCorvey’s closest friends, many of them Christians, did that for her in her dying hours.
At the end, McCorvey’s deathbed conversations were not with Nick Sweeney. They were spent with Father Pavone, who spoke with her the day she died, Garnett (by phone), and others. In the final hours, Garnett told me, McCorvey’s family asked Garnett to share some music. She sent the prayer songs that she had been listening to as she thought of Norma, and the family played The Lord is My Shepherd for McCorvey, resting the phone on her chest.
At the last, regardless of how conflicted McCorvey may have felt about abortion or the actions of herself or others, she died loved and surrounded by those who saw her not as Jane Roe, but as their precious friend: Norma McCorvey.
Jonathon Van Maren is a public speaker, writer, and pro-life activist. His commentary has appeared in National Review, The European Conservative, and the National Post, among others. He is the author of The Culture War and Seeing Is Believing: Why Our Culture Must Face the Victims of Abortion.
Speaking Out is Christianity Today’s guest opinion column and (unlike an editorial) does not necessarily represent the opinion of the publication.