Her case legalised abortion in the US. She is the very symbol of the pro-choice movement. But now `Jane Roe' has switched sides. She tells Daniel Jeffreys why

Daniel Jeffreys
Wednesday 23 August 1995 23:02

Norma McCorvey is just back from church. "I feel like a different person now," she says in a thick Texan accent. "Now I feel I have some respect." That seems to be what McCorvey has sought all her life. In drugs, in bad relationships, in alchohol. Yet for more than 20 years McCorvey was a heroine, a poster girl, one of the most prominent in America. Norma McCorvey is Jane Roe of Roe vs Wade, the lawsuit that legalised abortion in America in 1973. Her case was as famous as the OJ Simpson trial and far more significant.

Now Norma has had a change of heart. On 10 August Jane Roe repudiated the pro-choice movement and became a born-again Christian. At the same time she announced she would be working with Operation Rescue, the radical anti-abortion group founded by Randall Terry and Phillip "Flip" Benham. "The pro-choice poster girl has jumped off the poster, into the arms of Jesus Christ," says Benham, who has just brought McCorvey back from church. "Miss Norma has answered our prayers."

For pro-choice activists, McCorvey's defection was an unimaginable blow. But the relationship between McCorvey and the women's movement has always been ambivalent. Her defection now seems to have as much to do with that as the politics of abortion. Here was an insecure working-class woman who apparently felt disrespected by the middle-class leaders of the abortion rights movement from the moment of their first meeting.

"I know I'm not the world's brightest," says McCorvey from Flip Benham's noisy kitchen. "But I do have a brain, not that anybody in pro-choice really thought that. I kinda got the impression they thought I was stupid. I think they would much rather have had someone like them as their Jane Roe."

The irony is they could have had Sarah Weddington, the lawyer from a good family who took Roe vs Wade all the way to the Supreme Court and won. Weddington had an abortion four years before Roe vs Wade. Unlike Norma McCorvey, she had the money and knowledge to find a clean abortion clinic in Mexico. The clinic was just across the Texan border and was designed to get round US laws.

"She could've told me that," says McCorvey. "She kept that from me and I still don't forgive her and I never did have an abortion." McCorvey says she still remembers the night she first met Weddington and her colleague, Linda Coffee. "It was in Colombo's, a pizza joint, nothing fancy. They looked so out of place in their neat suits and combed hair. I sat down and felt nervous, I don't think they'd ever spoken to somebody like me before. Eventually, I asked Sarah where I could get an abortion. She said she didn't know. That was a damn lie and she knew it, but she needed me to be pregnant, so she could have a case to fight and I was too dumb to know she wasn't telling the truth."

By the time Weddington triumphed in Roe vs Wade it was too late for McCorvey to have an abortion; her mother adopted the baby girl. Twenty years later McCorvey was not invited to the anniversary party for Roe vs Wade, held at the White House. She says she cried most of that night and got drunk.

The radical lawyer Gloria Allred first met McCorvey at a pro-choice rally called to defend Roe vs Wade. Allred eventually became McCorvey's lawyer after the relationship between Weddington and McCorvey broke down. "I didn't realise Jane Roe was a real person until I met her at that rally," Allred says. "She was sobbing at the side of the stage and I asked if she needed help. She said she was crying because she was Jane Roe and the leaders of the rally had told her she couldn't speak to the crowd."

Despite these humiliations, McCorvey stayed loyal to pro-choice until this year. By July last year she had become the marketing director at a Dallas abortion clinic called A Choice for Women. The clinic had been picketed to the point of siege by Operation Rescue. McCorvey screamed abuse at the pickets and called them "vultures" on local television. Then last March Operation Rescue took a lease on the office next to the clinic. That's when McCorvey and Flip Benham were forced into close proximity and the journey to conversion began in earnest.

Benham says he felt a bond form last September. "I was standing outside the clinic and Miss Norma got out of her car. I felt the Lord surge in my heart and I called out in my loudest voice: `Norma McCorvey, your lie opened the door to the slaughter of 35 million children. You should be ashamed'. I was shocked by her reaction. She stopped as if hit by a stone. I knew that my words had pierced her heart and that broke my heart, too, because I knew I had really hurt her. I prayed to God for forgiveness and a chance to meet Miss Norma to apologise."

Benham had struck McCorvey in an old, deep wound. In 1970 she claimed falsely to Sarah Weddington that she'd become pregnant after a gang rape. In her autobiography McCorvey claims she lied to get Weddington's sympathy; she felt the lawyer was about to turn her case down. It took her 18 years to confess her lie publicly. "I knew I had done wrong, when I lied," says McCorvey. "I was desperate but I'm beginning to understand that's no excuse."

Flip Benham has told her it's no excuse every day for six months. Unlike her old friends at the pro-choice clinic, Benham has been devoted in his attentions. "After a while I really felt Flip cared for me, in a way the pro-choice people never had." Benham and McCorvey began to take lunch together and members of his church began to call, inviting Norma to services. McCorvey remembers a flight to New York with Benham. They were scheduled to appear on a TV show, to debate the different sides of what has often been America's fiercest political battle. "We were talking and Flip suddenly told me he had an apology to make. He told me about the time he had shouted at me and I recalled it real well."

"I wanted to say sorry and I did," says Benham. "I said `Miss Norma, I knew those words penetrated you and hurt your heart. Please forgive me'. She looked at me real serious and then she laughed. She told me she'd have to think it over." McCorvey says she was struck by Benham's apology because in years of what she says was mistreatment by the pro-choice movement nobody ever said they were sorry. "Flipper and his people have a humility, they don't care where I came from."

They do care where she's going and that's where Norma McCorvey may face new tensions. Flip Benham has much more in common with McCorvey than Sarah Weddington ever did. Benham used to run a spit and sawdust saloon in Florida. He says he was an alcoholic when he became a born-again Christian. He and McCorvey say they've had many experiences in common, but Benham has never been a homosexual. Norma McCorvey is, and for 26 years she has lived with the same woman, Connie Gonzales.

"I've talked to Norma about Connie," says Benham. "I've told her that the Lord is full of tolerance and love but that don't mean homosexuality is OK. Miss Norma knows her relationship with Connie must now be pure. She doesn't have to desert Connie, just so long as everything is pure."

"Connie will not be deserted," says McCorvey. "She has been with me through it all - she was the first to know that I was the real Jane Roe. I think I could walk away from Jesus before I'd walk out on Connie."

There is another area of potential friction. McCorvey told ABC News that she believes women should be allowed an abortion in the first trimester. Even though she's just heard a sermon from Benham condemning all abortion, she stands by this view. "For some women it's appropriate, if they find out early in their pregnancy that the child may be born deformed ..." She pauses and cuts her voice to a whisper. "It was the women who would call the clinic and want abortions after three months, that's what was driving me so low. I couldn't sleep at night."

Benham would prefer that McCorvey not cut corners with her morality and clearly expects a clean sweep. "She doesn't have all her theological Ts crossed yet. She's like a new infant, a new baby can't be expected to understand. You can't equivocate. The Bible says: `Not my will but thine be done'. That means it's not my body so it's not my choice."

"I'll take this at my own pace," says McCorvey. "I'm reading the Bible every day, trying to understand the scriptures. I was a sinner. I sold drugs, I've been a thief. I was shoplifting when I met Connie, she worked in the store. She let me keep the goods. All of that is sinning but the far greater sin I did was to be the plaintiff in Roe vs Wade."

Sarah Weddington says she was disappointed, but not surprised, when she heard of McCorvey's conversion. "She felt she wasn't getting enough attention," says Weddington. "It's sad to do this now when so many people are working against pro-choice. But all Jane Roe did was to sign an affidavit. She was pregnant and didn't want to be. That was her only involvement in the case. For that she wants a lifetime of gratitude?" There's bitterness in Weddington's voice. "I wouldn't use her if I had to fight the case again. It didn't have to be her, it could have been anybody - as it turns out anybody would have been better."

Norma McCorvey learnt that she'd won Roe vs Wade from the newspaper. The pro-choice movement ignored her until Ronald Reagan became president and packed the supreme court with judges who were against abortion rights. Then they needed her again. McCorvey says she felt used. Operation Rescue has pledged not to exploit her political status; McCorvey says she won't be exploited again. That said, abortion rights are under threat in America. The scope of Roe vs Wade has been much reduced. McCorvey is already a new weapon for Operation Rescue.

"The pro-choice people were always embarrassed by Miss Norma, that she lied about being raped," says Flip Benham. "Weddington and her people are just a bunch of private school girls with their noses up in the air, and Norma is a street girl. They hated Norma McCorvey but they loved Jane Roe. She has found a home with us and she will grow up in Jesus."

That she might. Norma McCorvey may find Christianity soothes the pain she says she's suffered for so long. It won't be easy. The pro-choice movement seems to have mishandled the relationship with its most famous asset when it seems all she needed was a little attention. She'll get plenty of that from Operation Rescue, but for how long? The anti-abortion movement is one of America's most intolerant. Its activists are probably designing their own poster for Norma McCorvey, and it's probably not the one that she'd draw for herself.

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