New FX Documentary Explores Life Of The Woman Behind Roe v. Wade Decision : NPR

NPR’s Ailsa Chang talks with film director Nick Sweeney about his new documentary AKA Jane Roe, which is available on FX starting Friday.



AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The new documentary “AKA Jane Roe” focuses on Norma McCorvey. She’s the woman behind the Supreme Court’s landmark decision Roe vs. Wade. In the years after that decision, McCorvey worked at a clinic that provided abortions. But then in the mid-1990s, she converted to evangelical Christianity and joined up with Operation Rescue. That’s a group that opposes abortion rights. Now in the film “AKA Jane Roe,” Norma McCorvey says she was paid by Operation Rescue to switch sides. I spoke with filmmaker Nicholas Sweeney. He directed the documentary. And I asked him to take me back to the day McCorvey made her confession to him.

NICHOLAS SWEENEY: Filming with Norma was such a unique experience as a filmmaker because she didn’t want to have big crews around. And so that day, it was just myself and one other person. And we were just having a pretty casual back and forth just talking about her life. And all of a sudden, Norma said…

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, “AKA JANE ROE”)

NORMA MCCORVEY: This is my deathbed confession.

SWEENEY: …And I didn’t really know what that meant. And we just started talking about her time in the anti-abortion movement. And I asked her…

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, “AKA JANE ROE”)

SWEENEY: Did they use you as a trophy?

MCCORVEY: Of course. I was the big fish.

SWEENEY: Do you think they would say that you used them?

And her response was…

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, “AKA JANE ROE”)

MCCORVEY: Well, I think it was a mutual thing. You know, I took their money, and they put me out in front of the cameras and told me what to say. And that’s what I’d say.

SWEENEY: In the moment, it was stunning for me to hear that. I was shocked. I didn’t ever expect that these are the things that Jane Roe would be saying to me. I was speechless, to be honest.

CHANG: And did you get the sense in that moment that she was being completely forthcoming…

SWEENEY: Absolutely.

CHANG: …In the sense that it was just about money, that – or did you get the feeling that there was some deeper reason?

SWEENEY: What I think is interesting is the transactional way that she describes it all. And, you know, Norma is backed up by Reverend Rob Schenck, who is one of the Operation Rescue leaders and one of the key organizers in a lot of Norma’s appearances. He says…

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, “AKA JANE ROE”)

ROB SCHENCK: I know what we were doing. And there were times I was sure she knew. And 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.

CHANG: Right. But other parts of Operation Rescue pushed back on that moment. The president, Troy Newman, said in a statement that he knew Norma McCorvey well and, quote, “there is no way her Christian faith or her pro-life beliefs were false” – end quote. And he goes on to suggest that the film actually exploited her in the vulnerable last days of her life. What do you say to that?

SWEENEY: I think that many anti-abortion groups have a lot to lose with Norma telling her real story and coming clean. So I’m not surprised that that’s the response from a group like Operation Rescue.

CHANG: Well, is there any part of you that thinks that maybe she was playing you? I mean, how much do you really believe her confession?

SWEENEY: I don’t think that Norma was playing me, but there is a very interesting streak to Norma that we touch on in the film. And that is that Norma says herself when she was young she wanted to be an actress, that, you know, she wanted to be a movie star. And at one point in the film, she randomly breaks into this – these lines from “Macbeth.”

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, “AKA JANE ROE”)

MCCORVEY: But what is life but an act upon the stage signifying nothing.

SWEENEY: And I think that Norma certainly saw herself as an actress. She says, I am a good actress, but I’m not acting now, of course, she adds.

CHANG: Why is it important to you as the director of this movie to believe her?

SWEENEY: Why as a director do I have to believe it? I think it’s an interesting question. And what we set out to do with the film was to speak to the people that knew Norma, whether they be the people that were the key organizers of Norma’s appearances at this time, you know, people that were very close to Norma, people that had spent a lot of time with her to find out what they thought, And you, know everything that Norma says is very clearly corroborated by those people. Rob Schenck says the jig is up. That’s what Rob himself says when confronted by these things. And I know that as a religious figure, he believes very strongly in the power of confession. I think it’s a very powerful thing for him.

CHANG: Right, but, you know, other people wrote in after the film who say that they have known her well, like President Troy Newman of Operation Rescue. And they believe that what she said was completely, you know, at odds with who she was, the Norma McCorvey that they knew. So I guess I’m wondering why you’re choosing to believe the subset of people you keep identifying.

SWEENEY: Because they are the people that knew her. I know that people like Reverend Rob Schenck and Gloria Allred and even myself spent hundreds of hours with Norma. And this wasn’t the only time that she said the things that she said.

CHANG: Oh, really?

SWEENEY: She says later on in the film that if a woman – if a young woman wants to have an abortion, fine. She says that women have been having abortions for thousands of years. And Roe vs. Wade helped save women’s lives. And she’s very clear in her beliefs, and what she believed is that women should be supported. That’s what Norma McCorvey believed. And I know that nobody that knows her would not agree with the idea that Norma McCorvey wanted to support women.

CHANG: Well, whether or not we believe Norma McCorvey’s deathbed confession in this film, what your film does show clearly is how both sides used her as a symbol and in a way manipulated a woman who didn’t have many people looking out for her. And she manipulated them both right back. What do you think the lesson is here?

SWEENEY: I think that there’s a tendency with a figure like Jane Roe, Norma McCorvey, to reduce them to trophies or emblems and to try to make that person fit within what our expectations of what this person should be. But Norma just wanted to be herself. I know that Norma, you know, even at other points in her life when she was campaigning for abortion rights, felt like she was expected to be a certain way. She described herself as not being a picture-perfect, white-gloved lady. I think that’s why she felt like she was overlooked by the abortion rights movement. And so I think that, you know, on all sides, there is this tendency to take a figure like Norma McCorvey and kind of, you know, reduce her to somebody that is more simple than she is. But at her heart, she was a very complex person who was full of contradictions like we all are.

CHANG: Well, on that note, I mean, you did approach Norma McCorvey with this idea of making a film where people get to know the real Norma McCorvey and not just McCorvey the figurehead for one side or the other. Do you feel that you ultimately accomplished that?

SWEENEY: The intention that we had was to show all the different facets of Norma. That – these contradictions are what drew me to her in the first place. I remember one of the things that she said that isn’t in the film, but one of the things that she said to me when we met was that her life felt like a movie without an ending. And I think that in getting to tell her story on her own terms and set the terms of her legacy in her own words, she hopefully got to put an ending on her story. I hope that she got to share who she really was. Because I know that throughout her life, she felt encumbered by the expectations of others. And I think that was incredibly oppressive for her.

CHANG: Nick Sweeney is the director of the new documentary “AKA Jane Roe.” It comes out on FX today. Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts with us.

SWEENEY: Thanks so much for having me.

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