Norma McCorvey, left, and her longtime partner, Connie Gonzalez in 1994.
(Tammye Nash/Dallas Voice)

In a new documentary filmed in the last year of her life, the woman who was Jane Roe says that her 1995 switch to anti-abortion activist was all an act paid for by Operation Rescue

Tammye Nash | Managing Editor

It starts with a close-up shot of a woman with her vivid red hair wrapped in a peach-colored scarf, her puffy, lined face carefully made-up, interspersed with opening credits. “My fleas are waking up,” she deadpans as she scratches her head and adjusts the head scarf.” Underneath it all is the unnerving rasp of her labored breathing.

“Oxygen?” suggests a male voice, as someone’s hand comes into the frame, holding a clear plastic cannula. She takes the tube and loops it around her face and over her ears. The credits continue, as does the rasping, with a cough added in this time. The shot returns to the woman’s face as, with closed eyes, she takes several deep breaths.

She opens her eyes, looks straight into the camera and declares: “This is my deathbed confession.”

Then she laughs, a cross between a chuckle and a young girl’s giggle.

The woman is Norma McCorvey. The documentary, now streaming on Hulu, is called aka Jane Roe, and it tells the story of the Dallas lesbian who served as plaintiff in Roe v. Wade, the landmark case that resulted in the 1972 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion in the first trimester nationwide, and who — after several years in the 1980s and early 1990s as a pro-choice advocate — in 1995 “converted” to evangelical Christianity and became an anti-abortion activist.

Her deathbed confession? The anti-abortion activism was all a sham, “all an act.” She was given scripts to read, and she was paid to be a figurehead for the movement to overturn Roe.

McCorvey died of heart failure on Feb. 18, 2017 in a Katy, Texas, nursing home. The documentary, a Ventureland and Monomania production created in association with Vice Studios, was filmed over the last year of her life. And while it starts out with the promise of a deathbed confession, it takes awhile to get to that, focusing instead on her difficult life and the circumstances that led her to seek an abortion when, in 1969, she became pregnant for a third time.

McCorvey told the story of her life — including the fact that she had given birth to three children but never had an abortion herself — in her memoir, I Am Roe, published in the summer of 1994. In an interview with Dallas Voice, published July 1, 1994, McCorvey and her longtime partner Connie Gonzales talked about their lives together, the hardships they had overcome and their efforts in the pro-choice movement. They talked about intersectionality before intersectionality was even a thing.

“I feel like the issue of choice is a big political umbrella,” McCorvey told Dallas Voice at the time. “It encompasses reproductive rights, African-American rights, animal rights, the environmentalists and gay and lesbian rights. We’re all trying to get under that umbrella and get protected.

“Choice and lesbian and gay rights are always in jeopardy, whether we have a pro-choice president or not,” she continued. “Women have to be on the defensive all the time. … If you’re not out, come out if you feel comfortable with it. We need more voices out there, not necessarily all in harmony but out there and supporting our issues.

“Even if you just come out to your neighbor or to the clerk at the grocery store, that helps. Just come out to one person a day. It’s an easy thing to do, and you’d be surprised how much better you feel.”

Then a year later, in August 1995, MCorvey was making headlines for her conversion and her baptism at the hands of anti-choice zealot Flip Benham in the swimming pool of a Garland home. McCorvey left her job at A Woman’s Choice clinic to go to work for Operation Rescue, telling Nightline at the time that Benham and others in that organization were “my friends … . They genuinely love me.”

Gonzales, who was still working for A Woman’s Choice, told Dallas Voice then that McCorvey’s religious conversion had nothing to do with the battle over abortion. “I don’t know if you can really say she was ‘converted.’ But she was baptized. She didn’t do it for Operation Rescue. She didn’t do it for anybody. She did it for herself, because she felt it was something she needed in her heart.

“She didn’t do it for Operation Rescue. I doubt very seriously if she’ll be seen with Operation Rescue,” Gonzales said.

And for a while, that was true. McCorvey went into seclusion, refusing to speak with the media or in public. But in early 1996, that, too, changed drastically, and McCorvey began taking a very public role in Operation Rescue’s anti-choice efforts. And although she continued to live with Gonzalez, she stated publicly that she had ended their romantic relationship and that she was no longer a lesbian.

(McCorvey lived with Gonzalez until 2006, moving out shortly after Gonzalez had a stroke. Gonzalez died in 2015.)

News of McCorvey’s conversion in August 1996 was not really all that surprising to Charlotte Taft, a Dallas activist for choice and for LGBTQ rights who founded Routh Street Women’s Clinic and was a friend to McCorvey.

Taft told Dallas Voice, “I’ve known Norma for many years. I’ve known that she is a person who has a lot of need for feelings of acceptance. I am not at all surprised that [Benham’s] reaching out to her is something she responded to. I don’t doubt [McCorvey’s] sincerity. But [Benham’s] sincerity is a whole other question.”

While local pro-choice leaders had “honored Norma many times” and found ways to make sure she was included in the movement, “we didn’t want to exploit her,” Taft said. Yet, the pro-choice movement offered only “more questions,” while Benham and his followers appeared to offer answers. “With him, she’ll always have the security of being told what is right and what is wrong. That kind of ‘peace’ and ‘security’ is what fundamentalism offers, and maybe that’s what she needs.”

To find out now that it was all a sham, Taft said this week, was a heavy blow.

In the new documentary, there is a scene where filmmakers hand Taft a laptop and show her footage of McCorvey admitting that “it was all an act.” Taft, her voice breaking, responds, “What a betrayal.”
This week, Taft told Dallas Voice, “When I said betrayal, I didn’t really mean betrayal of the movement. I meant betrayal of the hundreds of women who came up to her at events and thanked her and told her that she had saved their lives. I saw that over and over.

“In the film, she makes it quite clear that ‘I am just looking out for Norma’s salvation and Norma’s butt,’” Taft added, quoting something McCorvey said in the documentary.

And still, Taft said, she believes there was more to it than money. “I still feel very strongly that she was also seeking something the pro-choice movement could not give her — goodness,” Taft said. “We couldn’t give her goodness because abortion was so vilified and stigmatized. So the adoration from the evangelical church and later in the Catholic Church gave her the sense that she was finally on the good side.

“So in that sense, she was still sincere,” Taft added. “I believe that after a while she started to see them in a different way. At one point in the film she says about them, ‘They’re all assholes.’ I think that’s true. They told her she had to stop her sexual relationship with Connie, and they had a terrible time with her cursing and drinking. I totally believe what [former Operation Rescue activist the Rev. Rob] Schenck says, that they were afraid she might go off script. But they had the paychecks. I think Norma really lived in survival all her life — even when she had money, she was always conniving for the next buck.”

McCorvey was a woman damaged by the hardships of her life. She was someone always looking for affection and attention. She had always wanted a glamorous life, even telling the filmmakers that she had always wanted to live in Hollywood and be a star. Acknowledging her identity as Jane Roe gave her the chance to get that attention — first as a hero in the choice movement and later as an anti-choice figurehead.

Taft said, “At Norma’s memorial service [shown in the documentary], her daughter Melissa says that Norma was part of a documentary to show who she really is. I think Norma wanted to go out with a bang. There is a journalist named Josh Prager who is writing a book about her. He said she was able to get in the limelight, even from the grave! That’s true.”

And even though it may have been partly for attention, Taft said she thinks in the end, McCorvey was, at least in part, trying to undo some of the damage she might have done to the pro-choice movement with her sham conversion.

“In my opinion she wanted to leave the legacy of Jane Roe,” Taft said. “Flip Benham thought he drowned Jane Roe in that Dallas swimming pool when he baptized Norma. But Norma rescued her and dried her off, and it was Jane Roe that she presented in this film, and Jane Roe who made her feel most powerful and like a leader.”