For years, the woman behind Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion nationwide, was believed to be one of the most effective activists in the anti-abortion movement. But in a documentary released Friday, Norma McCorvey, the “Jane Roe” of Roe v. Wade, revealed what she called her “deathbed confession”: It was all an act.
She simply acted the part of an abortion opponent in public, McCorvey said in the documentary, “AKA Jane Roe,” because she was paid.
“I took their money and they put me out in front of the camera and told me what to say. That’s what I’d say,” she said, adding, “I am a good actress. Of course, I’m not acting now.”
In an interview with VICE News, Rev. Rob Schenck, who appears in the documentary, detailed how, during his days as a leader in the anti-abortion movement, he remitted multiple checks to her.
“I had checks made out to her and I signed those checks and in many cases I handed them to her. I gave her envelopes full of cash in those days,” Schneck said. “I never felt like I was paying an actress, but I did feel like I was paying for services rendered. So she went out, she represented the movement, she spoke at events, and we would compensate her accordingly.”
Schenck’s comments align with his remarks in the documentary, where he confirms that McCorvey was paid. The payments were sometimes called “benevolence gifts.”
“At a few points, she was on the payroll, so to speak. There were so many different elements of the movement that were cutting checks to Norma, I’ll never know how much was actually given to her,” Schenck said in the documentary. “There was some worry that if Norma wasn’t paid sufficiently, she would go back to the other side.”
Once, he recalled in an interview, McCorvey called him and demanded more money “in her very salty way.”
“She said, ‘You people are effing with me.’ She used the full word,” Schenck told VICE News. According to Schenck, McCorvey told him, “‘I do everything you ask me to do, I say everything I’m supposed to say, and you’re being cheap with me.’”
He directed his assistant to write out a check for $500, Schenck said. McCorvey said it wasn’t enough. “So I had it made out for $1,000. And that’s the kind of thing that was happening back then.”
On another occasion, Schenck recalled McCorvey telling him, “I can always go back to the other side.”
It was that unpredictability that ultimately led Schenck’s group to decide, internally, that maintaining a relationship with McCorvey was too fraught.
“You see her charm and you see her con,” Charlotte Taft, an abortion counselor who knew McCorvey, told VICE News of the documentary, which she also appears in. “And you see her vulnerability and you see her bitchiness, all of it’s there.”
“What happens when someone is so deeply abused from the very beginning of their life? Hard for them to get a center,” Taft went on. “She didn’t have much of a center, if you know what I mean. Just all survival.”
The documentary establishes McCorvey as an unreliable narrator, a theatrical woman who frequently chooses the most flattering angle to portray herself and her troubled life. A survivor of child abuse who dealt with drug and alcohol, McCorvey did very little in the 1973 Roe v. Wade case besides sign a few documents. She worked as an abortion rights advocate for years before famously defecting to the anti-abortion movement in the mid-1990s.
Some members of the anti-abortion movement have suggested that McCorvey’s words were somehow manipulated or aren’t representative of her real feelings. Live Action leader Lila Rose has accused the documentary’s filmmakers of “trying to change the narrative on abortion,” while Priests for Life National Director Frank Pavone has said that he remained in contact with McCorvey through the last years of her life and that her conversion to Catholicism was real.
But Schenck, who has since left the anti-abortion movement, said that he thinks viewers should believe McCorvey.
“Now, she’s speaking in this film for herself, in her own words,” he said. “She has finally gained the platform that we denied her — and, I would argue, the pro-choice side denied her, before we did.”
Cover: Pro-life activist Norma McCorvey poses in a Smithville, Texas park on July 15, 2011. McCorvey, who was “Jane Roe” in the 1973 Supreme Court case of Roe vs. Wade that struck down many state laws that restricted abortion, has led an eventful and fascinating life on both sides of the issue. (Photo by Robert Daemmrich Photography Inc/Corbis via Getty Images)
Disclaimer: “AKA Jane Roe” was produced by VICE Studios.