In ‘AKA Jane Roe,’ one-time Sonoma County resident Norma McCorvey explains why she switched sides on abortion
In a new documentary about her colorful life, the woman at the center of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion makes a startling disclosure: her later pivot to oppose abortion rights was something she was paid to do by anti-abortion activists.
Norma McCorvey, who lived briefly in Sonoma County in the years after the landmark case, calls the revelation her “deathbed confession” in the documentary “AKA Jane Roe,” produced and directed by Nick Sweeney and premiering at 9 p.m. Friday, May 22 on FX and the next day on Hulu.
The 79-minute film looks at the life and fame of McCorvey, leading up to her death from heart failure in 2017 at age 69. Not many legal cases become part of the nation’s everyday language. But Roe v. Wade did. The 1973 Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion in the United States and inflamed one of the most divisive controversies of the past half-century is still very much a part of the national discussion today.
In 1971, McCorvey — known in court documents as “Jane Roe” — filed a lawsuit against the attorney general of Texas, Henry Wade. McCorvey argued a Texas law banning abortion, which had been enforced against her, was unconstitutional. The Texas law only allowed an abortion if it was necessary to save a woman’s life. With its decision, the Supreme Court declared the right to an abortion a fundamental liberty.
McCorvey revealed herself to the press as being the plaintiff, “Jane Roe,” soon after the court decision. But even in Sonoma County, where she lived for two years several decades ago, she’s still not as well known or understood as the court case that bears her pseudonym, despite decades of heated debate.
With the Supreme Court decision, McCorvey emerged from obscurity to become a champion of a woman’s right to choose abortion. Later, she switched sides and became an anti-abortion activist, a stance she said she took because she was paid by an evangelist.
“Jane Roe is one of the most famous women in history and everybody knows the name, but they don’t know as much about Norma McCorvey,” Sweeney said. “Her life is full of fascinating contradictions. Our story is about Norma and her beliefs, and who she really was.”
Despite her role in the decision that legalized abortion, McCorvey never had an abortion. The pregnancy at issue in the case was her third. That was in 1969 in Dallas, when she was 21. By then, she already had given birth twice and both babies were adopted. Her third baby, born during the trial, also eventually was adopted.
McCorvey’s first child, Melissa, was adopted and raised by McCorvey’s mother and appears as an adult in the film. Others interviewed in the film include attorneys Linda Coffee and Sarah Weddington, who represented McCorvey in Roe v. Wade; famed women’s rights attorney Gloria Allred and two evangelical ministers, anti-abortion leader Flip Benham and the slightly more moderate Robert Schenck of the National Clergy Council.
“Norma used to talk about driving around California with Gloria Allred and listening to Bob Marley,” Sweeney joked. “As well as being an enigmatic figure, Norma was surrounded by charismatic characters.”
In 1983, McCorvey told the press she had been raped when she challenged the abortion law in Texas. She would later declare in a 1987 television interview with Carl Rowan that the rape claim was untrue.