'AKA Jane Roe': TV Review

AKA Jane Roe Still 1 - Norma McCorvey - Publicity -H 2020
Courtesy of FX
A must-see, yet deeply frustrating, doc.
5/22/2020

FX debuts a documentary portrait of the woman behind 'Roe v. Wade.'

The first time I saw Norma McCorvey — better known as Jane Roe of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court case that legalized abortion nationwide in 1973 — was on a Christian network that I stumbled on while flipping channels.

This was in the late 1990s or early 2000s, some years after McCorvey had transformed from a symbol of pro-choice righteousness to one of pro-life repentance. It was disheartening to learn that someone who'd played such a key role in the long and toilsome fight for women's rights now regretted her contribution, and I quickly changed the channel. Still, the revelation chipped away, albeit briefly, at my still-forming feminist convictions: If Jane Roe rued her abortion, couldn't other women, too?

McCorvey, it turns out, never had an abortion. As explained in the surprise-filled new biographical documentary AKA Jane Roe on FX, the landmark case was premised on the right for all women to have practicable access to abortive services. Recent law-school grads Sarah Weddington and Linda Coffee sought as their plaintiff a poor woman who would have had difficulty traveling to a state with less restrictive abortion laws than Texas, where the suit was filed, and McCorvey fit the bill. The real-life "Jane Roe" had so little to do with the case, apparently, that McCorvey found out that her side had prevailed from the newspaper. When one of her lawyers phoned her to relay their victory, McCorvey disagreed that she'd "won." "You won," she recalls telling the attorney.

Directed by Nick Sweeney (The Sex Robots Are Coming), AKA Jane Roe is both a must-see film as well as a deeply frustrating one. The marketing for the personality-driven doc boasts a "startling deathbed confession," but the impact of the disclosure is undermined by the previous hour's establishing of McCorvey as a mild to moderate unreliable narrator of her life, as well as by Sweeney's failure to confront his subject about how that revelation squares with the rest of her actions. (In the filmmaker's partial defense, McCorvey already seemed to be in ill health by the time of their interviews, though she was no less an eager raconteur for it. McCorvey died a year after filming, in 2017, of heart failure.)

Early in the documentary, McCorvey claims that she signed on to become the anonymous plaintiff in Roe v. Wade out of altruism, so that no other woman would have to feel "cheap, dirty and no good," i.e., the way she did seeking (but not going through with) an abortion in the late '60s. The biggest reveal of AKA Jane Roe is that her anti-abortion activism from the mid-'90s on was a mercenary affair — that she chose to betray her convictions, as well as her former allies in the feminist establishment, who were afraid of a politically inconvenient loose cannon like her, for money.

Sweeney builds effectively toward this twist, while arguing persuasively that being used and manipulated for others' gain was a throughline in McCorvey's often tragic life, which may be why she bristled so forcefully against the perceived lack of appreciation within liberal circles. (Fortunately, AKA Jane Roe doesn't dismiss both sides of the abortion debate as equally deplorable.) Sweeney also emphasizes the personal cost to McCorvey's born-again careerism, which included church-mandated celibacy within her decades-long relationship with a woman.

Woven through the chronology of McCorvey's life are interviews with anti-abortion activist Flip Benham and his former comrade-in-arms Rob Schenck. (The subject of Abigail Disney's documentary profile The Armor of Light, Schenck is McCorvey's foil in AKA Jane Roe — an evangelical minister who crusaded against abortion in a previous life and has since converted into a Roe v. Wade booster.) Benham, meanwhile, is crucial to McCorvey's metamorphosis, in his words, from the "spawn of Satan" to a "child of God."

McCorvey was most useful to the right as "Jane Roe," as my teenage experience of watching her speak on TV attests, but she also clearly knew how to provide a soundbite. "The pro-lifers have shown me what it's like to be a human being for the very first time in my whole life," McCorvey tells one reporter after her baptism. "I've never felt so good about being a woman."

But if AKA Jane Roe is a fascinatingly humanizing tale of the life behind the lawsuit, it also suffers greatly from Sweeney's narrow focus on his subject's theatrical bent and "deathbed confession." McCorvey's decision to join Roe v. Wade is strangely glossed over, as is her 180-degree turn from pro-abortion activist to anti-choice spokeswoman. (Even if her sole motivation was money, which it very well may not have been, I would've loved to know what went into the calculus for that extreme pivot.)

It also would've been illuminating to have some cultural context of the tactics within the religious right that McCorvey was best suited to carry out, such as the spectacles of public contrition that we see McCorvey perform in archival footage. Most disappointingly, Sweeney never gets his subject to account for her contributions in curtailing the reproductive rights for so many disadvantaged women like herself.

And yet, as limited in scope as AKA Jane Roe is, it does illustrate an urgent point that its filmmaker likely didn't intend to make: McCorvey's life demonstrates one pitfall after another of using emotional arguments for a policy debate that affects tens of millions of women in every walk of life. As understandably emotionally charged as it is, the debate over reproductive rights has to take the highly variable circumstances of real-life women into account, rather than using poster children like McCorvey, who are always much more complicated figures than either the left or the right wants them to be. AKA Jane Roe delights in those complications, but is content enough to present them without reconciling them with each other.

"I am a good actress," McCorvey brags in the documentary. "Of course, I'm not acting now." I'm not sure what's more tempting to believe: McCorvey's words, or her love of self-mythologization.

Director: Nick Sweeney
Premieres: Friday, 9 p.m. ET/PT (FX)