Smithville, Texas, USA. 15th July, 2011. NORMA MCCORVEY, the woman named ''Roe'' in the landmark 1973 Supreme Court case ''Roe vs. Wade'' which protected a woman's right to choose abortion, poses at a Smithville, TX city park on July 15, 2011. McCorvey, who died Feb. 18, 2017 in Katy, TX, claims in a new documentary that she was paid handsomely to reverse her position on abortion in the '90's. Credit: Bob Daemmrich/ZUMA Wire/Alamy Live News

A Life Lived in Infamy

"Smithville,

As a lifelong student of and advocate of sexual and reproductive health, rights and justice, I anticipated AKA Jane Roe (FX-produced movie, premiered May 22 on FX and May 23 on Hulu) would elucidate the complexity that was Norma McCorvey’s life and activism. My admiration for McCorvey’s courage in sharing her story and appreciation for the reality of her life brought a hope that filmmaker Nick Sweeney would give an overdue portrayal of this mercurial figure not just as a trophy to be won or as a symbol to be used. I was hopeful that Sweeney’s film would finally be the vehicle focused first on her as a human being with real experiences, troubles and battles to overcome. But I was disappointed. Seen by reproductive health, rights many as a leader in the battle for abortion access at different times of her life from either side of the debate, no media depiction of McCorvey is likely to be free of stigma, shame and judgement. However, rather than making McCorvey a sympathetic figure, AKA Jane Roe further strips her of her humanity and erodes what’s left of her reputation. In a society aching for kindness and compassion I was appalled to see a heroic figure depicted so spitefully and without recognizing her dignity.

AKA Jane Roe does not outright attack Norma McCorvey’s character, but it does little to counter previous attacks. In this day and age, if you’re not speaking out against something, you’re supporting it. This film’s failure to let McCorvey speak for herself and let her story be heard in all its contradictions surely served to undermine and ridicule as much as any frontal attack might.

Opening the film with a jarring clip of McCorvey giggling while saying “This is my deathbed confession,” Sweeney seems to make light of her words and lets viewers off the hook from taking McCorvey and what she had to say seriously. This tactic is amplified by the use of laugh tracks in a film about a topic that is not funny at all. The tone and message are consistent throughout the film, effectively painting McCorvey as unlikable, unapologetic, potty-mouthed, ugly, bitter, disrespectful, unapproachable, antisocial, reckless and deviant.

AKA Jane Roe combines newly recorded interviews and archival footage to paint this picture. In recent interview footage, McCorvey is typically seen wearing makeup and outfits that do not conform to the Western ideals of beauty. This juxtaposes her against clips of clergy, Operation Rescue staff and other antichoice actors who are conservatively groomed and heavily prepped with messaging. Whereas other interviewees are prompted with questions by producers, the audience never sees McCorvey being asked any questions or given any direction. Antichoice and ultraconservative religious participants are shown saying “effing,” whereas McCorvey is heard saying “fuck” countless times throughout the film.

Archival footage depicting the anti-choice side’s messaging around Norma and her religious and political journey is crystal clear, whereas film shown from her time working with the prochoice movement is grainy and difficult to hear (this may be in part due the fact that these clips showcase an earlier period). In a film about her own life’s story, the filmmaker seems to intentionally ostracize McCorvey and invalidate the prochoice movement to which she dedicated a great deal of her life and early well-being.

This film critically misrepresents faith and the role it plays within both individual lives and society at large. Nearly every “Christian” shown in this film is a white man—a clear message aimed to identify and approve of only one category of Christian people. Near the midpoint, McCorvey’s baptism as a born-again Christian is depicted. Once completing the baptism, the minister explains, “It’s all forgiven. You’re brand-new,” implying she was suddenly a perfect Christian woman with no past life experiences, thoughts or beliefs.

Throughout the film, McCorvey is portrayed as a bad Christian by all colloquial definitions, leaving the viewer with an impression that she was uncommitted to a faith journey she did not take seriously. When the religious right failed to turn McCorvey into a perfect image for their purposes, they sought to destroy her credibility as a woman of faith. Sweeney seems to go out of his way to emphasize this effort, such as in a scene in McCorvey’s bedroom, when she exclaims, “Jesus is my boyfriend!” as she points to the religious relics and symbols scattered throughout the room.

McCorvey considered herself a woman of faith until the day she died, yet the film depicts her relationship with her faith as fleeting, noncommittal and lackluster. This is a disrespectful way to portray a Christian woman after her death. My heart aches to know that Norma continues to be rejected by some members of a community of which she was once a proud and dedicated member.

One interviewee shown says, “I am not an activist, I am a Christian,” as he speaks about his antichoice actions in front of abortion clinics—as if the two are antonyms. The film leaves us to question: Are there no activists who are also Christians? Can good Christians not act to help protect their neighbors and defend social justice? This is a true misrepresentation of people of faith, faith itself and those who fight to defend our ability to practice our own faith traditions, or none at all. One can be a Christian woman and an activist, and Norma McCorvey was one of the best there ever was. She unabashedly committed herself to her faith and lived her faith values in her daily life.

She should be honored and remembered as a great Christian woman who changed the lives of millions because she told her story. Certainly, AKA Jane Roe does not do justice to that story.

Marlee Breakstone coordinates Catholics for Choice’s domestic activities at the state and federal level. She holds a bachelor’s degree in social theory and practice, with a focus on women’s health policy from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

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