Norma McCorvey of Roe v. Wade Said She Was Paid to Become Public Foe of Abortion

Norma McCorvey with attorney Gloria Allred in 1989
Attorney Gloria Allred and Norma McCorvey at pro-choice demonstration in 1989.Getty

In a new documentary, the real life plaintiff in Roe v. Wade says her public fight against abortion was all an act.

Norma McCorvey, the anonymous plaintiff in the landmark Roe v. Wade Supreme Court ruling legalizing abortion, makes a bombshell confession in a new documentary. In “AKA Jane Roe,” premiering Friday on television's FX channel, McCorvey is seen with an oxygen tube strapped to her face, telling director Nick Sweeney, “This is my deathbed confession.”

The woman who stunned feminists and friends in the 90s after abruptly becoming a born-again, very public opponent of legalized abortion, didn't really believe what she was saying at that time, she tells Sweeney.

“I took their money and they put me out in front of the camera and told me what to say, and that’s what I’d say,” she tells Sweeney in a 2017 interview. McCorvey became a tool for fundamentalist religious groups decrying abortion because they paid her a lot of money to do so, she says.

In the documentary, the Rev. Rob Schenck, an evangelical minister who worked closely with McCorvey, acknowledges she was "coached in what to say" and was paid because it was feared she "would go back to the other side."

"What we did with Norma was highly unethical. The jig is up," Schenck says in the documentary.

McCorvey, who died in an assisted living center at the age of 69 in 2017, was always a complicated figure in the contentious issue of legalized abortion. She said she was a poor working mother who was physically and sexually abused. She was a lesbian, but was taught it was "dirty," she said.

Critics said she was good at manipulating people to take her side. Supporters said she unsophisticated in the ways of politics and public relations. 

Yet she became the face of a movement and an outspoken abortion advocate in the 1980s, when the 1973 Supreme Court ruling was in jeopardy of being overturned.

Often appearing with attorney Gloria Allred, McCorvey spoke at press conferences and helped lead a massive 1989 march on Washington, D.C., that drew some 500,000 people in support of keeping abortion legal.

But in 1995, she switched sides. She was baptized as a born-again Christian in a swimming pool as news cameras rolled, and she appeared repeatedly at anti-abortion rallies, saying she no longer believed in the surgical procedure.

“It was all an act?” the director asks in the new film. “Yeah,” she says. “I was good at it, too.”

McCorvey never had an abortion. By the time the Supreme Court handed down its decision, she’d delivered her baby and given it up for adoption.

It was her third child. A daughter had been living with McCorvey’s mother. A second child was placed with adoptive parents. McCorvey did menial work, and struggled with substance abuse. She said she was not a responsible candidate for motherhood.

"It was 1969, I was pregnant and I was scared. These two attorneys were looking for a plaintiff to help overturn the Texas abortion laws," she says in the documentary. One of the lawyers was women's rights advocate Sarah Weddington, who would successfully argue McCorvey's case against Dallas County District Attorney Henry Wade in the nation's highest court.

Wade had already handled a nationally publicized trial. He successfully prosecuted Jack Ruby in 1964 for the shooting death of Lee Harvey Oswald.

Director Sweeney said he was surprised by McCorvey's admission, but understood why she made it in the last year of her life.

"Throughout her life, many different people wanted Norma to fit their preconceptions of Jane Roe," Sweeney told CNN. "She just wanted to be unapologetically Norma."

And in the documentary, she set her record straight. "If a young woman wants to have an abortion, fine. You know, that's no skin off my a**. You know that's why they call it choice, it's your choice."

Schenck told the news network he, too, feels differently about abortion. "These days, I think I will never be pregnant, I will never face that crisis in my life," he said. "So I don't really think I'm the best person to advise on it. I think that's the woman in crisis."