The ’60s-going-on-’70s produced Roe v. Wade, the landmark court case establishing a woman’s right to abortion. The ’80s-going-on-’90s produced Roe vs. Wade, the TV movie with Holly Hunter as Norma McCorvey, the pseudonymous Jane Roe.
There are three nice history lessons to be learned here. The first is that we need such popular retellings because, American amnesia being what it is, most of this history is already forgotten. The second is that even an admirable retelling such as this violates the history it means to respect. And the third is that in the climate of 1989 — anti-abortion hysteria and sponsor cowardice — the movie was worth doing regardless of its flaws.
And McCorvey’s story is splendidly told, with plenty of hints that it is more than just hers: a bit of history here (the legality of abortion in America until the 19th century); a touch of class conflict there (”I’m pregnant, not trash,” she insists); a whiff of moral complexity elsewhere (the grisly facts about the 3-month-old fetus). But for all the dutiful details and stunning acting, you never would know that the success of Roe v. Wade was the result of a social movement — of marches and demonstrations and personal sacrifices. You’d never know that all this ferment created the climate for favorable action from the Supreme Court. Without that stuff, the movie risks comparison with that other ’80s human interest drama — the baby in the well. With it (another historical irony), this would never have reached the little screen.