Since it has already made the news, let’s go ahead and spoil the film. Toward the end of FX’s “AKA Jane Roe,” we learn that anti-abortion activists used a pile of money and heavy doses of psychological manipulation to convert Norma McCorvey — the actual plaintiff in Roe v. Wade — into a trophy for their cause. The documentary makes for compelling viewing, especially in its final moments, when, McCorvey tells us that, to paraphrase Bob Seger, they used her, she used them, and neither one cared.
In reality, that movement has mistreated millions of other, equally vulnerable women and men in the still-unfolding tragedy of abortion politics in America.
If it seems shocking that the self-appointed defenders of “life” might behave in such a transparently unethical way toward a needy woman with a long history of disadvantage and adversity, well then, let us be shocked. But in reality, that movement has mistreated millions of other equally vulnerable women and men in the still-unfolding tragedy of abortion politics in America.
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“It was written in the ‘Book of Life’ that I’d get stomped on,” McCorvey says at one point in the film. From the moment she was plucked from the rougher margins of white society in the South to stand up for women’s rights everywhere, McCorvey was a convenient vehicle for the needs of political forces well beyond her control. With respect to the anti-abortionists, she’s had the nerve and the opportunity to stomp right back at them with her last-minute revelations. But in order to get a fuller picture of abortion politics in America, you have to look around the edges of McCorvey’s story.
A good place to start is with the missing years that come right after the Supreme Court’s crucial Roe v. Wade decision. After just a few clips on that 1973 verdict, the documentary quickly fast forwards to anti-abortion activism in 1984 and beyond. Why? Because long before the religious right turned Jane Roe into a paid actor-advocate, the movement had successfully concocted and sold a fiction about the place of Roe v. Wade in history.
When Roe v Wade was decided in 1973, Protestant leaders by and large welcomed the decision. W. Barry Garrett, Washington bureau chief of the Baptist Press, a wire service run by the Southern Baptist Convention, wrote, “Religious liberty, human equality, and justice are advanced by the Supreme Court abortion decision.” Garrett’s position wasn’t exceptional. The 1971 convention of the Southern Baptists endorsed a resolution that allowed abortion to preserve the “emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother,” as well as in other instances.
Republican political leaders, too, generally reacted favorably. In 1967, as California Gov. Ronald Reagan signed the most liberal abortion law in the country, Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater, known as a great conservative hero, articulated support for abortion rights, at least early in his career. Goldwater’s wife, Peggy, was an early mover behind Planned Parenthood. Betty Ford hailed Roe v. Wade as a “great, great decision.”
But then, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, leaders of a reactionary political movement that called itself the “New Right,” which included Heritage Foundation co-founder Paul Weyrich, Southern Baptist televangelist Jerry Falwell and others, came together to develop a common political strategy. Initially at least, their concerns centered in part on a fear that the IRS would eliminate the tax advantaged status of segregated academies. But they realized that this issue might not be sufficient to inspire a broad-based conservative counterrevolution. They evaluated a list of other concerns — prayer in schools or beating down the Equal Rights Amendment seemed like strong choices — but when they got to abortion, a lightbulb clicked on.
They evaluated a list of other concerns — beating down the Equal Rights Amendment seemed like the natural choice — but when they got to abortion, a lightbulb clicked on.
One of the great attractions of abortion was that it would at long last unify conservative Protestants and conservative Catholics. Which brings us to another silent part of the “AKA Jane Roe” documentary. At a certain point in the film, the viewer may notice that McCorvey starts showing up in the company of Catholic priests as well as born-again evangelical preachers. During her own born-again (or was it paid-again?) phase of life, McCorvey is heard declaring, in the same sentence, that she is “a born-again Christian and a faithful Catholic.” That conflation of two very separate Christian traditions illustrates just how effective the politicization was in transforming the very character of American religion.
To be religious, according to the new dispensation, was to be pro-life. As leaders of the emerging movement knew, if you can get large numbers of people to vote on a single, binary issue, you can control their votes. And you can call the politicians benefitting from those votes “pro-family,” even as they promote social and economic policies that intensify inequality, hollow out public goods like health care and education, and make it so hard for working families to succeed.
In a curious moment toward the end of “AKA Jane Roe," as we see McCorvey watching the returns from the 2016 election, she expresses shock and dismay at Donald Trump’s victory. She seems only distantly aware of her own part in the political drama. Yet her story is just a symptom of the politics of the movement. The religious right worked to convince McCorvey that abortion was the great defining evil of our time. Then they used her story to try to push the same line on other vulnerable Americans. In the end, the real consequence has been to drive their votes to a political party that appears not to care about them at all.