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In ‘AKA Jane Roe,’ one-time Sonoma County resident Norma McCorvey explains why she switched sides on abortion

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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.

After the Supreme Court decision, McCorvey lived quietly in Dallas until the 1980s, when she emerged from her cocoon and counseled patients at a women’s clinic in Dallas. In 1989, she moved to Sonoma County, to Forestville, with her longtime lesbian partner, Connie Gonzales. She and Gonzales later split up, and Gonzales also is featured in the documentary.

The year they moved to California was the same year NBC explored the case in a television movie, “Roe v. Wade,” starring Holly Hunter, who won an Emmy in the role of Jane Roe.

During her time in Northern California, McCorvey explored the possibilities of a career as a public speaker. She spoke at the annual meeting of the Sonoma County chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and to 800 students at Sonoma State University, urging them to to familiarize themselves with women’s issues. She also spoke at rallies at Santa Rosa’s Old Courthouse Square — sponsored by a Sonoma County group called ROE, an acronym for Reproductive Options for Everyone — and in San Francisco and Sacramento. She moved away from Sonoma County in 1990. The film skips over her years here.

By the time McCorvey returned to Santa Rosa in 2005 to speak to a crowd of 400, she had changed sides and become an opponent of legal abortion.

At a signing of her first book, the 1994 autobiography “I Am Roe,” McCorvey was befriended by Benhan, an evangelical minister and National Director of Operation Rescue, who baptized her in Dallas in 1995. She later was confirmed in the Catholic Church. McCorvey then became an outspoken opponent of legalized abortion.

In that zigzag history, Sweeney saw a story too tantalizing to resist.

“I reached out to her because I had wanted to work with her for a long time,” he said. “But when I first called her, she swore at me and hung up. There went my hopes. We texted a few days later and she asked me to come see her. We met the next week. She was in Katy, near Dallas. We had Texas barbecue and hung out together. She was incredibly open.”

Filming began in 2016, the year before McCorvey died. The whole project took three years, including documentation, extensive interviews and editing, said Sweeney, an Australian-born New Yorker whose previous films explored the transgender experience and one company’s attempt to create a fully-functioning sex robot.

McCorvey’s story appealed to Sweeney in part because of the way she first embraced and later rejected her lesbian orientation after her religious conversion.

“I am gay myself. I live in New York City with my boyfriend. Norma was an out and proud lesbian until the ’90s,” Sweeney said.

The film delivers a few surprising revelations about what McCorvey really believed. Even so, Sweeney doesn’t take sides in any of the controversies involved and his film doesn’t judge McCorvey’s abuse of drugs and alcohol during her early life or her “deathbed confession,” as she calls it, at the end of the film that she was paid by the religious right to speak out against abortion.

“I myself knew very little about her when I started the film,” Sweeney said. “I just try to get people to let me into their lives, if they’re brave enough. Norma was one of those people.”

You can reach Staff Writer Dan Taylor at dan.taylor@pressdemocrat.com.

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