Remembering Norma McCorvey’s change of heart
Pro-lifers say her late-life activism helped sow the seeds of today’s growing opposition to abortion
Norma McCorvey was 22, unmarried, and pregnant with her third child in 1969 when she went to a Dallas pizza parlor and sat down across from two abortion-advocate lawyers.
They urged her to sign paperwork, and not wanting her real name known, she scrawled “Jane Roe.” That signature allowed the lawyers to use her story—an unwed mother of two unable to obtain an abortion—in the case that prompted the 1973 Supreme Court decision to legalize abortion nationwide, Roe v. Wade.
“I didn’t even know what I was signing,” McCorvey later told her friend Janet Morana, director of pro-life group Priests for Life.
McCorvey, who died Saturday at age 69 from pneumonia and an existing heart condition, spent the years of her middle age fighting to overturn the ruling that bore her pseudonym—a decision she came to see as a tragedy.
After working at an abortion center in Dallas in the 1980s and early 1990s, McCorvey converted to Christianity and later to Roman Catholicism. Instrumental in these conversions was her own brutally honest personality and the influence of the pro-life group Operation Rescue, which moved next door to A Choice for Women, the abortion center where she worked, in March 1995.
At first, McCorvey was aghast, she recalled in her book Won by Love. She saw pro-lifers as “vicious, mean-spirited, fire-breathing, sanctimonious, self-righteous, bigoted hypocrites” who wanted to see her dead.
But she found Operation Rescue’s director, Free Methodist pastor Flip Benham, disarming. He once apologized to her for some hasty words. Other times, he offered to buy her lunch. Their friendship softened her stance toward pro-lifers and sparked curiosity for Benham’s faith.
That August, she accepted an invitation to his church, and Benham baptized her in a swimming pool.
Three years later, McCorvey joined the Roman Catholic Church, following directions from “The Big Boss,” she later wrote to Frank Pavone, a priest and pro-life activist she had peppered with questions about God.
Morana, who told me she became “very close” to McCorvey in the years following her conversion, said her break-up with the abortion industry began sooner than her conversion to Christianity: McCorvey was feisty and unafraid to tell people what she thought.
“Norma was completely honest with women about abortion,” Morana said. “She would ask them, ‘Why are you having an abortion? Is this really what you want to do?’”
McCorvey often suggested adoption and told women that’s the route she took for her unplanned pregnancies.
“The abortion clinic eventually got rid of her,” Morana said. “They would tell her to say certain things, and she would say, ‘I’m not going to say that. It’s not true.’”
Critics dismissed her transition to the pro-life movement as a publicity stunt, but those who heard her speak found her compelling.
Clarke Forsythe, acting president of Americans United for Life, heard her speak in Washington, D.C., more than a decade ago and remembers her being “contrite, apologetic, and very humble.”
“I think people were moved by that,” he said. “I know I was.”
Morana overheard McCorvey apologizing to women at pro-life conferences for the role she played in the Supreme Court decision permitting the deaths of millions of unborn babies. They never blamed her.
“It was part of this real friendship she had with the pro-life movement,” Morana said. “It was not that the pro-life movement used her. She became part of the movement.”
At age 55, McCorvey filed a 13-page affidavit in an attempt to re-open Roe v. Wade.
“It is my participation in this case that began the tragedy, and it is with great hope that I now seek to end the tragedy I began,” she wrote. “Because the courts allowed my case to proceed without my testimony, without ever explaining to me the reality of abortion, without being cross-examined on my erroneous perception of abortion, a tragic mistake was made—a mistake that this court has the opportunity to remedy.”
On Feb. 22, 2005, the justices refused to reopen the case.
Later that summer, McCorvey testified before Congress that she was “used and abused by the court system in America,” and compared what her lawyers did to the social experimentation favored by Adolf Hitler.
“We can ask the children to forgive us, but the children are dead,” she said. “We must also ask Almighty God to forgive us for what we have done. We must repent of our action as a nation in allowing this holocaust to come to our shores. We have to turn from our wicked ways.”
Though she did not see the overturning of the momentous decision she helped set in motion, her pro-life activism helped foster the ongoing effort to chip away at the 1973 case, Forsythe said.
“I think [Roe v. Wade] is more fragile in 2017 than at any point since 1973, and Norma McCorvey helped to make that true,” he said.
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