Norma McCorvey, the anonymous plaintiff in Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion throughout the United States, said she had later spoken out on behalf of the anti-abortion movement only because she was paid to do so, according to a new documentary.
Ms. McCorvey made the revelation just months before her death in 2017, according to the 80-minute documentary, “AKA Jane Roe,” which was made available to reporters ahead of its Friday premier on FX. She said that her support for the anti-abortion movement in the later years of her life had been an act.
“I was the big fish,” Ms. McCorvey says in the documentary, which was filmed in the last few months of her life and was directed by Nick Sweeney. “I think it was a mutual thing,” she says. “I took their money, and they’d put me out in front of the cameras and tell me what to say.”
She adds, “I am a good actress.”
Ms. McCorvey was a polarizing and inconsistent figure in the abortion debate, and her latest revelation in the documentary is unlikely to stem any dispute over which side she favored. Each claims the other used her.
The truth is that she was exploited by both, said Joshua Prager, a New York journalist who interviewed her extensively and is writing a biography of Ms. McCorvey.
“To say it happened on one side of the aisle but not the other is unfair,” said Mr. Prager, who spent hundreds of hours with Ms. McCorvey in the last four years of her life. “She was coached on both sides, and she was paid on both sides.”
Mr. Prager said that she believed women should have the right to choose whether to have an abortion through the first trimester. “She worried she would be responsible for the deaths of millions of babies, but she also worried that a woman may find herself in dire straits and may want an abortion and need an abortion — up to a point,” he said.
In 1970, when Ms. McCorvey was five months pregnant with her third child and wanted to have an abortion, two Dallas lawyers, Sarah Weddington and Linda Coffee, represented her in a case challenging Texas laws that prohibited abortions except to save a mother’s life. She had no idea at the time that the case would become a cause célèbre.
When the proceedings reached the Supreme Court three years later, the court ruled 7 to 2 in Roe v. Wade that privacy rights under the due process and equal rights clauses of the 14th Amendment extended to a woman’s decision to have an abortion in a pregnancy’s first trimester.
In the aftermath of the case, Ms. McCorvey stayed anonymous. But in the 1980s, she emerged from the sidelines, attending rallies and protest marches in support of abortion rights, working in women’s clinics and giving speeches.
In the documentary, the Rev. Rob Schenck, an evangelical minister, says that anti-abortion groups paid Ms. McCorvey to speak out against abortion because they were afraid she would go back to the abortion rights side.
“What we did with Norma was highly unethical,” Mr. Schenck says.
Troy Newman, president of Operation Rescue, said that the group had paid Ms. McCorvey honorariums to speak but that she had not received payment to lie about her views.
“You couldn’t tell Norma to say anything she didn’t want to say,” said Mr. Newman, who became friends with Ms. McCorvey in 1995.
He said that Ms. McCorvey had vacillated on abortion. “It was one of those things she always struggled with,” he said, adding that in the end, she would side with the anti-abortion camp.
Ilyse Hogue, president of Naral Pro-Choice America, an abortion rights group, said Ms. McCorvey’s revelation that she had been paid to campaign on behalf of anti-abortion groups showed that she, like others, had fallen prey to the “cynical effort to concentrate power in the hands of a small group of white, fundamentalist, Christian men at the expense of everyone else.”
Mr. Prager, Ms. McCorvey’s biographer, said that Ms. McCorvey’s reasons for switching to the anti-abortion side had been more complicated than money or conviction.
“It was a desire to be wanted and listened to,” Mr. Prager said. “Through reinvention and lies, she knew how to make news and grab the country. Now she’s done it again from the grave.”