The 'painful journey' of Jane Roe and the pro-life movement

norma mccorvey getty Norma McCorvey testifies before a US Senate Judiciary Committee subcommittee during hearings on the 25th anniversary of Roe v. Wade on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. | Chris Kleponis/Getty

A forthcoming documentary is expected to show that Norma McCorvey, the woman at the center of the Roe vs. Wade Supreme Court decision, was paid by pro-life groups to say things she did not believe in opposition to abortion.

A priest who says he was close to her for decades told CNA that while McCorvey was a complicated person, he believes her pro-life convictions were sincere.

"This is my deathbed confession," Norma McCorvey says in a trailer for "AKA Jane Roe," an FX documentary premiering Friday. Interviews with McCorvey were filmed before her 2017 death.

When she died, McCorvey had been in the spotlight, and at the center of the nation's divide over abortion, for decades. Born in 1947 in eastern Louisiana, McCorvey moved to Houston as a child, and endured an unstable and abusive family life. She spent several years living in state-run institutions, and has reported that she was sexually abused as a child.

She married at 16, had a daughter, and then left her husband. By 1969, she had had two children, both of whom had been placed for adoption, and McCorvey was pregnant for a third time. She attempted to procure an abortion, which was illegal in Texas at that time. She filed a lawsuit, which became Roe vs. Wade, and placed her third child for adoption.

McCorvey had by then developed substance abuse problems. She began a lesbian relationship that continued for decades. She claimed at one point that she had become pregnant through rape, but recanted that claim in 1987.

McCorvey was for a time an advocate for pro-abortion causes and was employed by an abortion clinic, until, in 1995, she had a conversion to Protestant Christianity. She was baptized by a prominent Evangelical pro-life advocate, and began campaigning against abortion.

In 1998, McCorvey was confirmed and entered the Catholic Church. McCorvey continued to practice Catholicism throughout her life, and received the anointing of the sick before her death.

After her baptism, McCorvey was an outspoken opponent of abortion. She also spoke about struggles with substance abuse and mental health issues.

Trailers for "AKA Jane Roe" suggests that McCorvey's pro-life activism was insincere, and motivated by money.

"I was the big fish. I think it was a mutual thing. I took their money and they'd put me out in front of the cameras and tell me what to say. That's what I'd say," McCorvey can be heard saying in the documentary.

"If a young woman wants to have an abortion, that's no skin off my ass. That's why they call it choice."

The priest who says he knew her well, Fr. Frank Pavone, head of the Priests for Life organization, told CNA May 19 that in his view, what McCorvey said in the documentary's trailer doesn't tell the whole story.

"Her story, and really anybody's story, especially if they've been on a journey, can't be told by an interview, a snapshot. It has to be told through a look at the whole journey."

Pavone himself is no stranger to controversy. The priest has been criticized for his engagement, as a cleric, in the political campaigns of President Donald Trump. In 2016, Pavone made a video in which he showed the body of an aborted baby on a table on which Mass was regularly celebrated, while he advocated for the election of Donald Trump, an act which his own bishop called a "desecration."

CNA has previously covered those controversies, and has raised questions yet unanswered about Pavone's diocese of incardination and status in the Church.

But the priest spoke with CNA May 19 only about his relationship with McCorvey.

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Pavone said he met McCorvey when she was baptized, and the two struck up a friendship. A few years later, when McCorvey told him she'd decided to become a Catholic, the friendship deepened. Pavone concelebrated the Mass at which she was confirmed and received into the Catholic Church.

Pavone told CNA that just weeks before McCorvey died, she spoke with him about a message she hoped he'd convey at the annual March for Life, encouraging young people to oppose abortion.

"There was no indication whatsoever, at the end of her life," that she had recanted her pro-life positions, he said.

He wondered about the context of the quotes shown in advance of the documentary's release.

"What was said before that? What was said after that? What does the raw footage show?" he asked.

Pavone said that in his view, McCorvey carried a lot of pain, from the difficulty of her life, and a sense of responsibility for the Roe vs. Wade decision, and its consequences.

During her life, McCorvey said the same in public speeches and remarks.

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But, the priest said, during their friendship he was humbled by "the effort that she made day-by-day, to strive to get beyond that pain."

"You know when you know a person. And that was our experience of her," he said.

As to charges that McCorvey was used by the pro-life movement, Pavone said that from his perspective, "I've never subscribed to the idea that the pro-life movement used her."

The priest conceded, however, that "one would have to say that, as in any movement, when there's a convert, you've got to be careful not to put them into the lights and the cameras before they've had the healing that they need."

McCorvey was often thrust into situations for which she wasn't ready, he said, as she also had been during her alliance with abortion advocates, and that caused her considerable hardship. 

As to McCorvey's apparent suggestion that her pro-life advocacy was a charade, 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."

Pavone said that McCorvey was never on the payroll of his organization, Priests for Life. He said the organization did help her to arrange speaking engagements, until McCorvey decided that frequent travel and speeches were too emotionally difficult.

"When we were helping her cut down on her travels, we, and a number of other pro-life people and groups, knew that she was close to destitute, so we would help her" financially, Pavone said.

"She needed help, she asked for help in various ways, she accepted it, but if the person helping gave the impression that they were trying to control her, or if she felt that the person helping her was smothering her, she would push back," Pavone said, adding that the two had difficult moments at various points of their affiliation, but, he said "you could always work things out and resolve it."

"She suffered in so many ways. As she went through Rachel's Vineyard, she was so very wounded," Pavone said.

"It was a painful journey."

Pavone said that in his view, McCorvey struggled in her final years, especially after a move from Dallas to Katy, Texas.

"In that final year, she was outside of the support network that a lot of her friends were providing in Dallas," he said.

"There were a lot of people in those last years- even at her funeral- who were pushing themselves into her life. It was a bit of chaos in that last year of her life," he added.

The priest said he can't speculate about what McCorvey might have said in the forthcoming documentary, or why. He said he will be watching, from the perspective of a person who knew McCorvey for decades.

As with most of Norma McCorvey's life, both pro-life and pro-choice advocates will be carefully watching the documentary, looking to understand the complicated truth- whatever it is- about the woman who began Roe vs. Wade.

"AKA Jane Roe" premieres May 22 on FX, and May 23 on Hulu. 

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