As It Happens

'We used her': Minister regrets paying Roe vs. Wade plaintiff to speak out against abortion

Rev. Rob Schenck says he will spend the rest of his life trying to repair the damage he did by treating Norma McCorvey as a "trophy" for the anti-abortion movement.

In a new documentary, Norma McCorvey said she was a paid actor for the anti-abortion movement

Norma McCorvey is embraced by Rev. Robert L. Schenck in 1996. Schenck says McCorvey's relationship with abortion was complicated, and that he regrets how he and the anti-abortion movement used her. (Cameron Craig/The Associated Press)

Rev. Rob Schenck says he will spend the rest of his life trying to repair the damage he did by treating Norma McCorvey as a "trophy" for the anti-abortion movement. 

McCorvey, better known as "Jane Roe," was the plaintiff in Roe vs. Wade, the contentious 1972 U.S. Supreme Court ruling  that entrenched a woman's right to have an abortion.

She was the first woman to challenge a criminal abortion law in the U.S. But in the mid-'90s, she converted to Christianity and became an outspoken abortion opponent. 

In a new documentary, McCorvey says in a "deathbed confession" that her about-face was all an act. When she spoke out against abortion later in life, she was a paid actor. She gave the interview shortly before she died in 2017. AKA Jane Roe premieres Friday on the U.S. channel FX. 

Rob Schenck is one of the evangelical pastors who paid her to make public appearances on behalf of the anti-abortion movement. 

He spoke with As It Happens host Carol Off about McCorvey's complicated relationship with abortion, his own guilt, and why he has since had a change of heart on the abortion debate. Here is part of their conversation. 

What went through your mind when you heard Norma McCorvey say that her apparent change of heart on abortion was all an act?

I can't say I was shocked.

I was surprised because I hadn't heard her say anything quite like that in our times together, many times together, over 21 years. But I did know that Norma harboured doubts about the pro-life message she was telegraphing. 

But we all kind of were OK with that and thought, "Well, you know, so long as she keeps that to herself, what's important is the message that she's conveying to the public." 

McCorvey, left, and her attorney Gloria Allred, right, hold hands as they leave the Supreme Court building in Washington after sitting in while the court listened to arguments in a Missouri abortion case in 1989. (J. Scott Applewhite/The Associated Press)

But she was more than just ambivalent … she says in the documentary that if a woman wants to have an abortion, it's "no skin off my behind. That's what we call choice. It is her choice." And yet she was a powerful poster girl, poster woman, for the anti-abortion movement that you were part of, was she not? 

She was. 

Norma was a very important name.

And I'm sorry to say, all these years later — and I say so with a certain amount of personal pain — that we saw her as a kind of trophy.

I wish we hadn't. I live with quite a bit of regret over that. But that's the way it was in those days.

We did not respect her as the complex individual that she was. Instead we used her.-

In this documentary, it's not just stunning to have this what she calls a deathbed confession, but it's that people like yourself are in this story to say that you have regrets about how she was used. Why so? 

First of all, I realize that I and others ... in the movement, objectified her. We did not respect her as the complex individual that she was.

Instead, we used her. I think she used us. It was something of a symbiotic relationship. But the fact that we were OK with that and that ... we were complicit in it, I have to own that now.

And I think I'll probably spend the rest of my life trying to do a little repair for the damage that was done through that arrangement with her.

I have to be careful to say it wasn't quite as abject or cynical as it may sound. There was never a time when I thought, for example, that I was paying an actor. She uses that term in her commentary in the film. 

But it worked both ways. She was getting something out of the arrangement and the movement was getting something important.

Why do you think she made this deathbed confession?

I look back now and realize that her entire conscious life was a bid for survival.

From her very young days suffering terrible abuse; through her teenage years when she was raped and sexually assaulted repeatedly through a very violent, tumultuous marriage; through the years of the beginnings of Roe vs. Wade; and then through her experience with the pro-choice movement, then the pro-life movement. These were all bids for personal survival. 

And so at the end, she gets to tell us that, basically, in her own words. And when she was being used, and it's hard for me to say, but I certainly perpetrated that. ... She was given a script.

She wasn't able to speak for herself until the very end of her life. Literally.

McCorvey speaking with other anti-abortion demonstrators inside House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's office on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/Associated Press)

The movement that you were part of, that you recruited Norma to be part of, was the anti-abortion movement. Hundreds, sometimes even more than that, ... would be in front of abortion clinics. Very intimidating for those young women, women who are going to get abortions. Why have you had a change of heart? 

That's a long answer because it took 10 years for me to travel that road to change, but it was mostly by seeing the human drama — the human agony — that attends to the whole subject of abortion. 

And I finally realized this is not a cause. This is not a political agenda that we win or lose.

These are human beings in dilemmas and I can't, as a man especially, I can't even pretend to appreciate what a woman goes through in that moment of crisis with a pregnancy.

So I've come to the conclusion that as difficult as this is, a woman needs to make that decision as best she can.

I can't impose that decision on her because I will never sit in her place.

As you know, right now in the United States, there is a strong return of that movement that would make it difficult, if not illegal, to obtain an abortion, to have choice. And what effect do you think this film, this documentary, might have on cases coming up, including that of the Supreme Court? 

I hope the parties involved on both sides of this very contentious issue will come away from this film at least appreciating the complexity of it. 

And Norma McCorvey's life illustrates that. She is the embodiment of complexity. 

And in the end, I would hope that that will help some to understand that we can't answer these questions with legislation, with law enforcement, with, you know, lecturing and moralizing. 

These are deeply personal, painful and enormously complex matters of human experience. 

Written by Sarah Jackson. Produced by Chloe Shantz-Hilkes. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 

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