In what she calls her “deathbed confession,” McCorvey admits that anti-abortion groups paid her to switch over to their side in the abortion debate, around 20 years after she became a pro-choice icon for being the plaintiff in the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade.
Nick Sweeney, the director of “AKA Jane Roe,” says he had no idea that McCorvey was about to make such a dramatic confession, and that it represents her “subverting everyone’s expectations one last time.”
McCorvey’s story is one of tragedy, abuse and plenty of contradictions. The Australian director, who recently recovered from a “pretty nasty bout” of coronavirus, spoke with Variety about what McCorvey was really like, and the timing of his documentary amid seemingly growing threats to Roe v. Wade.
When did you first encounter Norma and how did the idea to make this documentary come about?
Like many other people, I knew about Roe vs. Wade, this huge, iconic, famous or infamous case, depending on which way you look at it, but I didn’t really know anything about the person at the center of it. The more I found out about Norma, the more I was just kind of left in awe of how fascinating her life was. It was filled with these contradictions and twists and turns. These twists were perplexing and confounding, she seemed so contradictory and I wanted to try to make sense of all of that. I knew there was this Jane Roe, she was involved in the case, but then she got baptized in a swimming pool and crusaded against that case. She was an out and proud lesbian for many decades, but then suddenly she disavowed her sexuality. That’s all I knew, and the direction that documentary went in was very different from what I expected.
How did you get close to Norma?
Initially, when I reached out to Norma, she had a lot of questions about who I was. I think she’d been approached by a lot of different people and she was sick of having to be on-script. A lot of her life she had spent oppressed by the expectations that people had of her. So, she asked me questions like what congregation do I worship at? What organization am I reaching out to her on behalf of? The answer to both of those was none, I simply wanted to talk to her and get to know her and find out who she was. Once she realized that I was somebody who was uninvolved in the abortion debate, she was very warm, very friendly, and all of a sudden, she wanted me there all the time, she wanted to hang out and we would go driving together. One of the things that she said, we don’t actually include it in the film, was that I reminded her of Connie, who was her lesbian partner of many decades. I know that she really missed Connie a huge amount, she was one of the nice figures in her life, one of the people that loved Norma unconditionally, and the way that story ended was very sad. Once we got talking, I went back and forth every month or every second month and stayed in Texas for a week, sometimes two weeks throughout the final year of her life.
Norma died while the film was being made and she says at one point that this is her deathbed confession. Why do you think she felt the need to confess to you?
I didn’t know it was going to be the final year of her life, obviously, but I think she had an inkling. She knew that her health was in decline and this was her chance to define the terms of her legacy and to set the record straight and to do it on her own terms. If she didn’t, somebody else was going to tell her story. I think she felt very much like she had been used throughout her life. She felt she was certainly overlooked for her involvement in the case, she said that she wasn’t a picture-perfect, white-gloved lady. She felt like she wasn’t the right poster girl that the pro-choice movement wanted, and then later in her life she certainly felt used by the anti-abortion movement. When I asked her, ‘Did they use you as a trophy?’ Her response was, ‘It was a mutual thing. I took their money, they put me out front and told me what to say and that’s what I’d say.’ She felt disgruntled, she wanted to just be herself, she wanted to go off-script and kind of defy the expectations that people had for her. She subverted people’s expectations at so many different points in her life, and in this film is probably the last.
Talk about the stunning revelation that she was paid by pro-life groups to switch camps. What was your reaction at the time?
I was as shocked as everybody else hearing what she said, particularly around her feelings of being used and the transactional nature of it all. She was incredibly frank, and it was it was really shocking to me. I was kind of taken aback in that moment when she revealed she was paid to do what she did, but what was very important to me making this film was to speak to other people, to key figures that were involved at this stage. Reverend Rob Schenk, the evangelical minister who was one of the key figures in Operation Rescue, he comes clean, he backs up all the things that Norma says and does so in a way that was another surprise to me. He says, ‘the jig is up, I knew what we were doing to Norma and what we did was highly unethical.’ There’s a part where he says that there were so many people paying her that he didn’t even know how much she was getting, and he admits that they continued to pay her because they were scared that she’d go back to the other side. ‘One minute you’re selling Nissan, the next minute you’re selling Chevy,’ is what he says. These things that tumbled out of people’s mouths as we filmed with them just startled me throughout the whole process.
The question that springs to mind after her confession is what now? Is this an “Aha, I knew it all along” moment, a moment of vindication for the pro-choice camp? What does her confession mean in the larger scheme of things?
I think at the core, this film is about Norma and her life and what she thought and who she was. it’s a very personal perspective on a huge issue. Norma was this one woman who was down on her luck and found herself in a really, really difficult situation pregnant with a child she thought she couldn’t raise, and then suddenly she was thrust into the center of this enormous cultural debate. The movie is Norma’s perspective on all of that, it’s about her. In terms of a greater lesson that people would learn from it, something that I learned and what I would hope an audience will take away from, it is that with figures like Jane Roe, there’s a tendency to reduce them to a simple figure who fits with what we want them to be, rather than embracing their complexity. I think that can be very oppressive for the Jane Roes of the world, for the Norma McCoveys of the world, to have that expectation and to have so much attention and scrutiny. I think it is an incredible amount of pressure and I would really love for audiences to think about what it’s like for women like Norma who are in that type of situation, who end up these trophies or emblems or are pulled in different directions. It’s difficult to hang a movement or an idea on a single person.
Talk about the conversations you had with the pro-life leaders, with Flip Benham and Reverend Schenk; those must have been difficult at times, especially as a gay man yourself?
Flip has never hidden his views, he’s never been coy about what he believes and that is true for abortion, and it’s also true for gay people and queer people and trans people. I was surprised that he said in the interview, ‘When Miss Norma came to know Jesus, that meant there’s gonna be some lifestyle changes.’ It’s just a very frank and unvarnished and frankly a very conditional statement from him. Rob Schenk gives a similar line where he says that Norma knew that in order to be accepted by that movement, she had to end her lesbian relationship and declare that she was no longer homosexual. I think sometimes maybe these conditions are implied, rather than explicitly stated, and it was quite confronting for me to hear them explicitly stated in such clear terms. When you’re gay, you learn that there’s a lot of dog whistles around identity and how people talk about you and treat you and perceive you. What Flip Benham what Rob Schenk said, those are not dog whistles, they’re very clear. It was surprising to me to hear in such plain terms the conditions of what they expected from Norma.
At the very end of the documentary, we see Norma witnessing the 2016 Presidential election, and her being bullish that Roe v. Wade will never be overturned. Do you think she would still have that same position if she were alive today?
That is such an interesting question. In terms of these scenes that you were mentioning, I think an interesting thought from Norma when the election was going on, amongst some of the colorful language that she used, is that Roe versus Wade isn’t going anywhere, ‘they can try but it’s not happening, baby.’ But she said that early on the night of the election, when the results weren’t clear and she, like so many of us, felt that the election was going to go different than how it did. Rob Schenk, similarly, says in the film that he used to think that Roe versus Wade would never be overturned, but now he thinks it could be. It’s impossible to speculate on what Norma would have thought of how things have ended up. Things have changed a great deal in the subsequent years since she died, and I think that’s one of the reasons why it’s more important than ever to understand that behind this case and behind this divisive issue is an actual person. There is a human element and human cost to all of this, and that’s the story of Norma McCorvey’s life.
“AKA Jane Roe” premieres May 22 on FX.