Has anyone been more misunderstood than Norma McCorvey? In 1973 she took on the pseudonym of “Jane Roe” as the plaintiff in a landmark Supreme Court case that legalized abortion in the United States. McCorvey went public a year later, authoring a memoir, I Am Roe, and initially embracing a role as a pro-choice advocate. Then, in 1995, she switched sides, becoming an evangelical Christian and a prominent anti-abortion activist who spoke three times at the March for Life. By 2017, when she died at 69 in Katy, the New York Times described her as “an almost mythological figure.”
At least, that’s the tidy conversion story that had always been told (in dozens of magazine profiles and newspaper features). The story changed this week with a revelation from a new documentary, AKA Jane Roe. Shortly before her death, McCorvey told filmmaker Nick Sweeney that she was paid by anti-abortion groups to champion their cause. Sweeney tracked down documents and sources verifying that McCorvey accepted nearly $500,000 from Operation Rescue and other anti-abortion organizations. “I took their money, and they took me out in front of the cameras and told me what to say,” she admits on camera. Not surprisingly, this confession made national headlines. It seems that once again, Norma McCorvey will be defined by her role as a symbol in the abortion wars.
But McCorvey was a human being, not a symbol—and AKA Jane Roe urges viewers to remember that. Importantly, her “deathbed confession” doesn’t come until an hour into the nearly eighty-minute documentary. Its main focus is, instead, the parts of her complicated life that were often overlooked—from her childhood in Houston and Gainesville, Texas, growing up with an abusive mother, to battling addiction and trauma; from her complicated relationship with her own sexuality and her partner, Connie Gonzalez, to the inner workings of her role in both the pro-choice and anti-abortion movements. Most don’t know that McCorvey herself never had an abortion, yet she was involved in the landmark case that made it legal nationwide.
AKA Jane Roe brings into focus McCorvey’s humanity, which has so often been overshadowed by controversy, divisiveness, and attempts to make her into an emblematic figure. Ahead of the film’s release on FX this weekend, Texas Monthly spoke to Sweeney about working with McCorvey, the documentary’s impact on her legacy, and the conversations he hopes to spark.
Texas Monthly: What made you want to focus on Norma McCorvey?
Nick Sweeney: I’m actually a law school graduate, and I’ve always been aware of this huge famous case of Roe v. Wade. Everybody knows a little bit about it, but people didn’t know much about the woman at the center of it, Norma McCorvey.
As I did more research, I was blown away by how interesting her life was—it was this quite sad story of this young woman who was down on her luck and found herself in an impossible situation and ended up being thrust straight into the center of this extremely divisive debate that’s raged on for decades. I was interested in the person at the center of all of that work. I also liked that she was somebody who was full of contradictions and was very complex. I wanted to try to unravel some of that.
TM: I thought you did a great job of unpacking those complexities without shying away from her flaws.
NS: Yeah, I think at various different points in her life, people wanted Norma McCorvey to fit their idea of who Jane Roe should be, but Norma just wanted to be her unvarnished self. I think that she wanted to show, by participating in the documentary, who she really was. Almost like Norma McCorvey off-script. I think that’s kind of what she and I wanted to share.
TM: What was it like working with her?
NS: Early on, when I first made contact with her, she was not friendly. She wasn’t all that keen on talking to me. But then she became curious about who I was over text and was asking, “What congregation do you go to?” and “What group are you approaching me from?” And the answer to both of those was none. I think that she was keen to open up because I was somebody who was uninvolved in this debate. I wasn’t approaching it from an organization. But in terms of what I expected, I absolutely did not think for one second that this was the film that I would be making.
As a filmmaker you maintain a distance, but we became close, and we hung out a lot. A lot of the time we weren’t even filming; we were just driving down dusty roads in Texas. She’d always make me stop at any magnolia tree and make me pick her a magnolia. Then she’d take that back home and put it in a vase. She was fun to be around. I think the people that knew Norma, like Charlotte [Taft, an abortion counselor], who was featured in the film, described her as having a kind of wry charm. Norma led this incredibly difficult life, but she always had a sense of humor about it, and I found that very charming. I think my favorite thing about her, though, is that she was a real survivor. She’d been through so much, and she kept going and kept fighting.
TM: Norma is at the center of Roe v. Wade, but can you talk about where she fit in and didn’t fit in within the pro-choice movement at the time?
NS: I think Norma certainly felt earlier in life that she had been somewhat overlooked by the abortion rights movement. And I think one of the really interesting moments in the film is when Charlotte . . . says the line about how Norma wasn’t the ideal poster girl for Roe v. Wade, but at the same time, the ideal poster girl probably couldn’t have been the plaintiff in the case in the first place, just due to the fact that they needed somebody like Norma to fit the bill. It’s a really interesting contradiction. And I think Norma’s life is such an interesting presentation of the contradictions around this debate and the way that it’s raged on for decades.
TM: I spoke to Charlotte, and she mentioned that Norma represents this vast middle ground of the abortion debate and the uncomfortable ambivalence that lies there.
NS: What was really interesting is that the different sides of the debate just wanted Norma to fit into a more convenient understanding of who Jane Roe was, from when she was an activist for abortion rights to when she was appearing publicly against abortion.
TM: What do you think this film means for Norma’s legacy?
NS: One of the things that was really interesting as I started to get to know Norma was that she was very aware of the fact that she was running out of time. And I didn’t realize this when I was with her. I didn’t know what her health was like, but I think she was very aware that she didn’t have that long left and that she wanted to set the record straight and tell her story in her own words and set the terms of her legacy. If she didn’t tell her story, then someone else was going to.
TM: I also liked that in the film, you included the reactions to her confession from various people. The one that surprised me the most was Reverend Rob Schenck, who is very candid and repentant about his role in paying Norma off.
NS: Yeah. As a filmmaker, you don’t see people talk in such an honest way all the time. I feel incredibly lucky that, like Norma, Rob was at a point in his life where he was willing to come clean about this stuff. It’s astonishing, the level of honesty that Rob showed.
And one of the things that he and I have spoken about since he had a look at the film was this idea of confession . . . the kind of power confession has in the sense that it gives the individual power over their story. And it is a form of catharsis. I think for Rob taking part, it was certainly cathartic.
TM: That’s a good point. It seems like Norma’s confession served the same purposes as well.
NS: I agree that it was her attempt to kind of define herself and do it in her words, on her own terms. One of the things that I really love about the film is that when you look at some of the footage, in some of the previous decades, she feels very on-script, like she has a measured, careful way of talking. And when I’m filming with her, she’s telling dirty jokes, and she’s quite funny. In one scene, she just burst into a couple of lines from Macbeth, which I think is so funny.
TM: Why do you think it’s important to talk about Norma’s story now more than ever?
NS: The case that Norma was involved in kicks off this huge cultural war. It became a big divisive debate. But I think it’s more important than ever to understand that the center of this case and of this issue was a real woman with a fascinating story, somebody who was incredibly complex. That’s what I think is important. And, you know, beyond the issue, there is this actual person.
The other thing that I find very interesting is this idea of how we treat a female public figure, especially somebody who is tethered to this very divisive issue. I think it’s very interesting to examine how we look at a woman in the public eye. You know, what was she subjected to, what did she experience, and what was the effect of that?
TM: I think that’s a very important conversation to have.
NS: Especially today, especially right now, where there are a lot of parallels between Norma’s life and Norma’s experiences and the lives of a lot of public women today. Even these kinds of similarities that are so prescient, like the 1989 women’s march and the similarities between that and marches that are taking place at the moment or over the last few years. In many ways, things have stayed the same.
And I also hope that it reaches a young audience. Especially, if it could reach people that were the age that Norma was when she first became involved in the case. She was 21, verging on 22, when she became pregnant. I think people who are right now at that age really don’t know very much about her or about what her life was like. I’m really looking forward to younger people getting to see the film and think about what her life meant. We take these big cases for granted. But behind all of them are real stories—not all as interesting as Norma’s.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.