Flipping channels in a hotel room in Chicago in June 1995, I stopped at The Late Late Show, where Tom Snyder was interviewing Norma McCorvey, the “Jane Roe” of Roe v. Wade. She spent much of her time reciting sarcastic clichés about pro-lifers, bantering with Snyder and laughing at my expense — and, of course, at that of everyone who shared my conviction, to say nothing of the unborn children whose welfare we were always being told was none of our business.
Flip Benham, an Evangelical minister, had succeeded Randall Terry as director of the pro-life organization Operation Rescue the previous year and moved its national headquarters to a Dallas office complex that included the abortion clinic where McCorvey worked as a marketing director. Later, in her book Won by Love (1998), she described some of her early interactions with Benham. They were tense.
“Are you still killing babies, Miss Norma?” he asked her in the parking lot.
“The Rescue people proved more resilient than cockroaches,” she wrote. “We simply could not scare them off.”
By the time I caught her interview with Snyder, her attitude toward Benham had obviously softened. She spoke of him derisively but with an undertone of affection. She called him “Flipper.” Apparently he and Miss Norma had bonded, like Don Camillo and Peppone, the conservative Catholic priest and the Communist mayor who publicly squabble but tacitly hold each other in warm esteem. McCorvey said she borrowed Benham’s Bible when she needed to look up a verse. In a different interview a few weeks earlier, she had called their relationship “pretty bizarre.”
Besides being exasperating, McCorvey was charming. She was blunt, a vivacious tough girl in middle age, possibly playing up her rustic unpretentiousness a little, which would be its own kind of affectation, but better to err on that side than to put on airs. I remember thinking as I sat on the hotel bed watching her gab on TV: I wish she was on our side — and not just because it would be a coup for the pro-life movement if she joined us. I liked her. Her glib putdowns of people whose only crime was to think as I did left me somewhere between annoyed and indignant, but the gentleness of her gibes at Benham was touching. She was drubbing him like an angry cat who took care to retract her claws. I was smitten by ambivalence.
Later that summer, I picked up the New York Times one day and almost laughed: “‘Jane Roe’ Joins Anti-Abortion Group,” the headline read. Benham had baptized her in a backyard swimming pool. Three years later, she was received into the Catholic Church, in whose arms she remained for the rest of her life. She appeared to find some peace there.
Her conversion from pro-choice to pro-life activism was roughly simultaneous with her religious conversion and followed the same pattern: She did not plunge into those waters but waded, a step at a time. “I still believe in a woman’s right to an abortion,” she told an interviewer two days after her baptism, “but only in the first trimester.” On a local radio station only hours earlier, she said, “I’m pro-life. I think I have always been pro-life. I just didn’t know it.” Got that?
“I think she has this whole trimester idea,” Benham said. “I think that’s something that takes a little time.”
Where McCorvey was in mid August 1995, most Americans are today. Look how far she traveled in the end.
So it does. Pro-life advocates, pay heed. Where McCorvey was in mid August 1995, most Americans are today. Look how far she traveled in the end. Note that she did not arrive at her destination overnight and that she was motivated to go there not because someone had opened her eyes to the iron logic of the pro-life position. She eventually left Operation Rescue, whose sharp edges she thought were not helpful to the cause, but the human touch of its members in the Dallas office clearly changed her.
By the late 1990s, McCorvey was advocating for the protection of unborn children, period — no age limits. She founded a nonprofit, Roe No More, dedicated to pro-life advocacy. At speaking engagements she explained that she had never had an abortion — she gave birth while the lawsuit that became Roe was winding its way through the courts — and confessed that she was lying when, to bolster her case, she asserted that her pregnancy resulted from rape. Her real reason for seeking an abortion was less dramatic: She was poor. She was not taking proper care even of herself. Trying to care for a child in addition, wouldn’t she sink them both?
Her life had been hardscrabble. She left school after the ninth or tenth grade (accounts vary), married at 16, soon divorced, and relinquished (or lost, depending on your source) legal custody of her infant daughter. She abused alcohol and drugs. Much of her adult life was defined by a long-term same-sex relationship that she embraced in her first book, I Am Roe (1994), and renounced a few years later, after her religious conversion, although according to some accounts she continued to live with her companion for years afterward, though platonically.
Money was always short. McCorvey worked at various times as a bartender, a housecleaner, and a carnival barker. In a deeply researched profile in Vanity Fair, Joshua Prager described her pro-life activism as mercenary — she texted to him that she would speak with him for a thousand dollars — to about the same degree that her earlier stint with the pro-choice movement had been. In the 1980s she had begun to do some public speaking on behalf of abortion rights.
She later complained that abortion-rights lawyers and activists had used her as a “pawn.” They pushed her forward as their movement’s mascot. When she switched sides, some pro-choice commentators blamed their own camp: They had patronized her, they had failed to treat her with due respect.
Resentment of snobbery may well have contributed to her decision to reject the upper-middle-class world of abortion-rights advocacy and take up with the pro-lifers, whose culture, despite its share of lawyers and think-tank scholars, has always been notable for its grassroots and grit. Benham and his Operation Rescue embodied the sincerity that won her over.
The class dimension of that turning point in her life, and in the history of the abortion debate in America, is more conspicuous now than it was at the time, given the populism that has defined the political mood both here and in Europe in recent years. A fundamental arrogance of the abortion-rights movement runs through its studied dehumanization of the unborn child. Condescension is not dehumanization, but it’s on the way, and if some of the coldness with which McCorvey’s handlers regarded “the fetus” entered into their commerce with her, good for her for recognizing it and standing up for herself.
Ultimately, her standing up for herself and for unborn children was all of a piece. She could identify with them. “You reject them, you reject me,” the radical anti-abortion demonstrator Joan Andrews Bell wrote many years ago in a letter from prison. Trying to reconcile abortion rights with the Golden Rule leads inexorably to self-abasement, though by degrees so subtle that few who attempt that balancing act ever notice: You can maintain that your parents had the right to abort you, or you can assert your own right to life, but you can’t do both. You have to choose.
I never met McCorvey but I sent her a fan letter once, by e-mail. She replied with a courteous thank-you, a single sentence. Her presence and demeanor in her later years struck me as a bit subdued. She’d made many mistakes in life — committed some grave sins, as she must have now reckoned them in the light of her faith. She looked and sounded chastened. And if she felt that she had been exploited by the pro-choice movement back in the day, surely she had reason to take precautions against suffering comparable treatment at the hands of well-meaning enthusiasts on this other side of the abortion debate.
By a twist of fate, or providence, McCorvey was cast in the role of Jane Roe and spent most of her adult life following one script and then another. Toward the end, she loosened her grip on the persona, and it became harder not to notice the person behind it. Susan Boyle holds a similar fascination. Beneath her awkward looks and reputation for being slow-witted, the magnitude of a great soul went undetected until, after nearly half a century, she finally broke through and made her signal heard by the outside world: “I’m human, like you. Can you hear me? Can you hear me?”
Norma McCorvey spent the last two decades of her life giving voice to the voiceless, defending the dignity of unborn children and, in the process, herself. She died on Saturday, too young, at age 69. Requiescat in pace.