“Honey, why on earth are you crying?” Norma McCorvey, aka Jane Roe, asked me when we first met in 1999.

Then, I was crying for joy in meeting her. But I’m crying now to learn that she made a “death bed confession” and that she had only been a pro-life speaker because she was paid to switch sides. 

At least, this is the claim made in a documentary, called AKA Jane Roe, directed by Australian Nick Sweeney, which was released last week. And, admittedly, she told him things which would make a pro-lifer blanch. “If a young woman wants to have an abortion, that’s no skin off my ass,” she says.  “That’s why they call it choice.”

I knew Norma and Connie, her partner, and I am not surprised that people who knew her much longer than I did object that the film has many omissions and distortions (hopefully to be rectified in a forthcoming official biography).

Above all, it leans decidedly towards a pro-choice agenda.

Sweeney says that he misses her — but he knew her only for a few months. He blew into in her nursing home and claimed that he had no agenda other than wanting to “tell the story of Norma McCorvey” to the world.

She liked his Aussie accent and manners and agreed.

She wrote to her friend, Fr Frank Pavone, a well-known pro-life Catholic priest, about a fellow who had come down from New York to document her life’s story. He would give her some money when the filming was done, and that, she wrote, “made me very happy.”

But Norma died three years before the film was released, and she was never paid.

Sweeney told the Los Angeles Times that the goal of the documentary was not to add fuel to the abortion debate but to explore the life of the “enigmatic person at the center of this very divisive issue”. 

However, the film is made up mostly of old footage cobbled together, garnished with short clips featuring the dramatic “confession”. Sweeney refuses to release the extended footage, so we don’t know the context of McCorvey’s remarks.

McCorvey died in 2017, of a progressive lung disease in a nursing home in Katy, Texas. She was 69. Her daughter, Melissa, was with her when she passed away. Only a few hours before they spoke on the phone with Fr Frank Pavone, Norma’s friend of 25 years. “I’ve got to make you promise that you’ve got to carry on this cause,” she said.

That was her true “deathbed confession”.

It’s odd that Sweeney didn’t consult many of the prominent people who kept up with Norma. There were no testimonials from Flip Benham, Randall Terry, Fr Pavone, Janet Smith, Pat Pelletier or several others who came into Norma’s circle of friends in Texas after I moved away.

Daniel Vinzant, one of Norma’s closest friends, a former Baptist minister and pro-life promoter, saw her every week until she went into the nursing home. He dismisses the documentary.

“Never mind,” he told me, “The truth is that Miss Norma made a complete 180 from her support of abortion, and she was from 1995 a firm believer in our Lord. I believe I know her heart and I for one will not let a soon-to-be-forgot video take away the good work and beautiful heart I witnessed first-hand for 22 years.”

Interviewed by CNA about the documentary, Fr Pavone said: “I can even see her being emotionally cornered to get those words out of her mouth, but the things that I saw in 22 years with her— the thousands and thousands of conversations that we had — that was real… Her conversion was very, very sincere, and she paid a price for it.” He ought to have some insight into her dispositions – he received her into the Catholic Church in 1998 (along with Fr Matt Robinson OP, who was her spiritual director until his death in 2013) and presided at her funeral.

None of these testimonies was included in the documentary.

Predictably, critics have seized upon Norma’s apparent turn-around as proof that the pro-life movement is a corrupt sham. “Have anti-abortion activists no shame?” asks Arwa Mahdawi in The Guardian.

“Like many right-wing operations, it turns out a huge part of the anti-choice movement was a scam the entire time,” tweeted Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Esquire talks about Norma’s “wellfinanced mock apostasy”.

I was one of the early pro-lifers and I know that this is false. It began as a grass-roots movement with almost no funding at all.

I helped to launch Right to Life North Carolina in 1973. It was just we three couples in a living room strewn with toys and children. There was no money at all in the 1970s and 80s. The general unpopularity of the pro-life movement until well after the turn of the millennium would have itself been a deterrent to anyone who was considering jumping ship.

My own friendship with Norma was not so rich and long as other people’s, but it was a joy to me, and her courage impressed me.

I remember the day I met her: a hot August morning in 1999 after a Sunday Mass at the Dominican Priory on the campus of the University of Dallas. Afterwards I made my way towards two women sitting side-by-side near the entrance.

The smaller of the two wore a denim shift and had her red hair piled on top of her head; she looked at me with a slight smile and sad, blue eyes. I recognized her. She silently extended her hand and I burst into tears.

That was when Norma asked me with amazement, “Why on earth are you crying?”

I answered, “Because, Norma, you give so much hope. You are the walking embodiment of the mercy and love of God.” Norma looked up at me steadily, with complete simplicity she replied, “I’m rough, honey. I’m just ‘folk’ like everybody else.” I just replied: “There’s hope for us all.”

Later on, I interviewed her for a magazine that I edited and I invited her to speak at a conference for women in 2001. She came along with her partner, Connie Gonzalez. (They lived in a lesbian relationship for many years, although it became platonic after her conversion.)

I think that it is important to understand that Norma was a complex, bruised and wounded woman. Her own mother admitted that “I beat the f*** out of her.” She was heroic to survive all the trauma she suffered in her lifetime.

She never had much money and just scraped by. That she survived with the help of donations from pro-life friends is hardly news. Joshua Praeger published a tell-all article in Vanity Fair in 2013 which revealed this and other details of her chaotic life.

Significantly, one of her lesbian friends told Praeger about Norma: “A story would be told one way, and three days later it would be completely different.”

Inadequate and dishonest as AKA Jane Roe may be, it is bound to rekindle a long and vicious battle in the weeks ahead, with the pro-choice side reclaiming Norma as their long-lost poster girl and the pro-life movement claiming that Norma was true to the end.

However, the transition of the pro-life movement from a grass-roots initiative in 1970s and 80s to a big-money operation, a sub-category of conservative politics, is equally a part of Norma’s complex life experience. She had little patience for that.

Rev Rob Schenck, a former pro-life activist, plays a prominent role in the documentary. His comment on Norma’s relationship with the pro-life movement was perplexing and sad, but not out of character for her: “I wondered, ‘Is she playing us?’ What I didn’t have the guts to say was, ‘because I know damn well we’re playing her’.”  

For 30 years, Norma used a public forum to blast anyone who did not care about poor women in hard circumstances and had no regard for the lives of babies. She experienced profound guilt at having emptied the playgrounds of children and she was tormented by nightmares and dark visions.

The pro-choice contingent was embarrassed by her bluntness and her calling others out for insincerity. She was of no use to them after she signed the papers for Roe v. Wade. Norma was dropped with indifference by the privileged and professional women who purported to be her friends.

Her sarcastic contempt for them was obvious at a meeting of pro-choice leaders before a Senate subcommittee. Norma, the last to introduce herself, said: “I’m Norma McCorvey, the Jane Roe of Roe vs Wade. These other ladies here, they just wish they were.”

After watching AKA Jane Roe, I’m afraid, you will be no closer to knowing the real Norma McCorvey.

Retired from raising a large family and hosting five decades of her late husband's students and colleagues, Ruth Lasseter enjoys travel to Malta, when possible, and otherwise a quiet life of prayer, reflection...