The woman whose unwanted pregnancy helped establish the legal right to an abortion nearly a quarter of a century ago said Thursday that she now believes abortion is wrong and pledged to begin “helping women save their babies.”
“Once you know the realities of an abortion and what goes along with it, it stays with you,” said Norma McCorvey, better known as the pseudonymous Jane Roe of the landmark 1973 Roe vs. Wade Supreme Court decision.
In a stunning twist to one of America’s most contentious political battles, the 47-year-old McCorvey renounced her work on behalf of the abortion-rights movement, explaining in a prepared statement that she recently had been baptized by the leader of the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue.
Her comments came two days after she quit her job as marketing director for a busy Dallas women’s clinic, where she said she had been shocked by the sight of a “freezer full of fetuses.”
McCorvey’s child, who was born before the Roe vs. Wade ruling, was put up for adoption.
Her dramatic turnabout sent shock waves through both sides of the emotionally charged abortion debate Thursday.
Leaders of the abortion-rights movement were swift to downplay the significance of her reversal, describing it as a personal matter that did nothing to undermine the Supreme Court’s controversial ruling.
“It would be unfortunate if the anti-choice movement exploits Norma McCorvey’s personal decision in its effort to deprive other women of their right to exercise reproductive choices,” said Kate Michelman, president of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League.
“The anti-abortion movement is desperate,” added Tammy Bruce, head of the National Organization for Women’s Los Angeles chapter. “This is the sort of thing they have had to turn to.”
Anti-abortion leaders, despite issuing a news release belittling abortion-rights activists as “powerless against the gospel of Jesus Christ,” said they had no intentions of parading McCorvey as a political trophy. Her new pastor, Operation Rescue evangelist Flip Benham, said he was concerned only for her spiritual well-being.
“I love Norma McCorvey,” Benham told ABC News on Thursday. “My plan, my purpose is simply to encourage Norma to keep her eyes fixed on Jesus, to follow hard after Him.”
McCorvey, appearing on the same program, accused abortion-rights activists of doing the show-boating. “I felt like they only cared about what I could do for them, not what they could do for me,” she said. Then, referring to her new anti-abortion colleagues, added: “They are my friends. They accept me for who I am, not what I’ve done or what I can do for them. They genuinely love me.”
The seeds for her change of heart were sown on March 31, when Operation Rescue moved its national headquarters to a Dallas office complex right next to the A Choice for Women clinic where McCorvey worked.
Although the anti-abortion group denied it was a deliberate campaign to pressure a symbol of the abortion-rights movement, McCorvey bristled at the time, describing her new neighbors in an interview with The Times as “a pack of vultures circling the carcass.”
In the months that followed, however, an odd sort of friendship seemed to blossom between the two antagonists. Despite the public hostilities, McCorvey admitted to enjoying private talks with Benham. “It’s bizarre,” she said in the same interview. “He listens to me and I listen to him. We argue, we kid each other . . . but he doesn’t make me feel bad about myself.”
She also began to exchange pleasantries with Operation Rescue’s office manager, Ronda Mackey, whose 7-year-old daughter, Emily, would often greet McCorvey with a hug and invite her to join them at church. In July, she finally accepted.
“I was scared to death,” McCorvey said, according to an Operation Rescue press release. “I thought the ceiling was going to come down. Jane Roe in church? For heaven’s sakes.”
But McCorvey was also feeling vulnerable. A former drug dealer and alcoholic who lived under a shroud of anonymity for most of her adult life, she said she was searching for spiritual nourishment, something to bring her peace after “too many drunken nights and too many nights of not being able to sleep.”
On Tuesday, after quitting her job at A Choice for Women, she joined Benham and about 35 Operation Rescue supporters at a home in a Dallas suburb. He baptized her in a brief, intimate service. “There was weeping and there was great joy and praising,” Benham told Dallas radio station WBAP.
“I’ll be serving the Lord and helping women save babies,” McCorvey said. “I will hold a pro-life position for the rest of my life.”
Her newfound faith creates one thorny problem for McCorvey’s personal life. A lesbian, she may be forced to end her 21-year relationship with Connie Gonzales, who still works at A Choice for Women.
Although she hasn’t been formally asked to sever ties, an Operation Rescue spokesman in California said it’s “something she needs to abandon immediately” if she plans to follow the organization’s teachings.
Gonzales, in a brief interview Thursday with The Times, said McCorvey had promised to stand by her. Whether or not McCorvey’s conversion eventually puts a strain on their relationship, Gonzales said she was heartened by the change in her longtime companion.
“She felt something had lifted from her body,” Gonzales said. “For the first time, she felt at peace with herself.”
Times staff writer Eric Malnic in Los Angeles and Times researcher D’Jamila Salem in Washington contributed to this story.