NEW YORK — Norma McCorvey’s admission that her conversion from the face of abortion rights -- as the “Jane Roe” of the historic 1973 Supreme Court case -- to an opponent of the practice came with payments from anti-abortion activists might seem to be a blow to their movement.
But the headline-making revelations McCorvey offered in the recently premiered documentary “AKA Jane Roe” stand little chance of denting anti-abortion activists’ momentum in Washington.
In fact, leading religious conservatives and some of their critics agree that the anti-abortion alliance of Catholics and evangelicals has come to wield outsized political influence, thanks to their close ties to President Donald Trump’s administration.
Anti-abortion activists are largely dismissing McCorvey’s on-camera “deathbed confession” about the authenticity of her work on their behalf. Pointing to the complexity of McCorvey’s personality and her beliefs, abortion opponents contend that the new film misrepresents her genuine qualms about terminating pregnancies.
The Rev. Frank Pavone, leader of Priests for Life and a prominent Catholic Trump supporter, grew close to McCorvey during her transition to Christianity as she become an anti-abortion advocate in 1995. Pavone said McCorvey’s “burden of pain” from her involvement in the Roe v. Wade decision was unquestionably real, despite her tendency to air blunt grievances and say “things that make her seem like two different people.”
“If she was making up her regret,” Pavone said of McCorvey, “what we witnessed and what we went through with her would have been impossible.”
He was among more than two dozen anti-abortion activists who last week wrote to the chairman of FX Entertainment and the film’s director, taking issue with its depiction of McCorvey as a feigned convert to their side. Their letter asserts that their movement is making headway against abortion rights, prompting counter-efforts by abortion supporters.
Indeed, a major test in the nation’s decades-long battles over abortion is set to come by the end of June, when the Supreme Court is expected to issue its first major ruling on an abortion case since the addition of two justices appointed by Trump – Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh.
Anti-abortion groups and the Trump administration hope the court will signal its willingness to take weaken protections for abortion by upholding a Louisiana law that would require doctors at abortion clinics to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital.
No matter what happens in that case, however, the negative effect of the McCorvey documentary has been minimal compared with the victories notched by anti-abortion activists under Trump.
Rev. Robert Jeffress, pastor of the Southern Baptist megachurch First Baptist Dallas and a frequent guest at the White House, echoed fellow abortion opponents in describing Trump as “the most pro-life president in history.”
Jeffress stressed the significance of Trump’s judicial appointments – scores of new federal judges believed to be open to reconsidering and perhaps reversing the Roe decision.
“The president has understood that the real power for the pro-life movement is the judiciary,” Jeffress said.
Even some who have critically eyed conservative anti-abortion groups' growing influence said that the McCorvey film would likely not deal their advocacy a lasting blow.
John Gehring, Catholic program director at the liberal-leaning group Faith in Public Life, said anti-abortion advocates "have reached a high-water mark in their ability to have the ear of the most powerful person in the world,” referring to Trump — though he warned that alliance “has serious long-term consequences for the moral viability of the movement.”
Katherine Stewart, a journalist who wrote a book about American religious nationalism, sounded a similar note.
“Movement leaders made peace with supporting Donald Trump — pretty much the paragon of anti-family values — so one should expect that they will make peace with whatever revelations this film offers on the rather smaller potato of Norma McCorvey," Stewart said by email.
The film shows McCorvey, shortly before her 2017 death at age 69, saying she took money from anti-abortion groups “and they put me out in front of the cameras and told me what to say.” Both Pavone and Rev. Rob Schenck, a prominent evangelical and former anti-abortion activist, described some of that compensation as more indirect than a specific payment to leave the abortion-rights camp.
“In a movement, and especially in the Christian evangelical side of the movement, it’s only seen as right take care of people financially,” said Schenck, who now supports the Roe decision.
McCorvey quips in the documentary that “I am a good actress.” But Schenck, who worked with her following her anti-abortion shift, said “I never felt like I was paying an actress” even though he did worry at times that McCorvey felt neglected enough by anti-abortion groups to consider switching sides.
Trump has rallied behind anti-abortion groups' goals as he works to lock in conservative religious voters, an effort Pavone is assisting as an adviser to the president's Catholic outreach project. The priest, who spoke at McCorvey's funeral, said the film could ultimately benefit anti-abortion activists by showcasing little-known details about her life.
“The only way we don’t make progress is when people aren’t talking about these things at all," Pavone said. "Once you start wrestling with them ... we end up advancing in the end.”
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Elana Schor And David Crary, The Associated Press