“Flip just baptized Norma McCorvey, you know, Jane Roe!”
It was April 1995, and I was just getting comfortable in my new ministry post in Washington, D.C. By then I knew a pro-life preaching partner, Phillip “Flip” Benham, had moved his office next door to the Dallas abortion clinic where Norma, the infamous icon of abortion rights, worked as a marketing director.
Flip was a Free Methodist minister who had teamed up with the leadership of Operation Rescue, the movement I had worked to advance from shortly after its founding by Randall Terry in the mid-1980s. “OR,” or “Rescue,” as we called it, was known for blockading the entrances to clinics with mostly peaceful, prayerful mass sit-ins. Flip had recently taken the helm of the organization. He and I had tag-teamed speaking through bullhorns on sidewalks more than a few times.
As soon as I heard of Jane Roe’s conversion, I got on the phone with Flip. He told me what happened: After bantering back and forth with Norma as the two encountered one another outside their shared office complex, Norma and Flip had started talking and even sharing lunches together. Then, the seven-year-old daughter of Flip’s office manager, a real cutie named Emily Mackay, sweet-talked Norma into attending church with her family. The result was life altering for Norma and for many of us. Following her public profession of Christian faith, Flip baptized her in a backyard swimming pool.
It took some work, but I was able to arrange for Norma to come to Washington the next January for a major pro-life event. It was our second annual National Memorial for the Pre-born and their Mothers and Fathers, an interdenominational prayer service I had founded with my twin brother and would continue to lead for 20 years. This would be Norma’s first speaking engagement in Washington as a Christian. The national media covered her appearance on the same stage with her one-time nemesis, Randall Terry, who gave her a bear hug in front of the capacity crowd at Georgetown University.
In the years that followed, Norma would return to our event several times, on one occasion placing the cherubic Emily Mackay in her lap and reading to her from a children’s book about the preciousness of life. The audience melted. That was Norma’s softer side. A former bartender and house painter, she could at times be crass and cantankerous, but she was also sweet and humble.
Over the years, Norma and I would see each other at pro-life gatherings around the country. I came to know and love her. She was consummately unpretentious. You never had to second-guess what Norma was thinking because she’d tell you—in no uncertain terms! She also struggled—with shame, with low self-esteem, with memories of the past, regrets and resentment, and with cigarettes and alcohol. If Norma was anything, it was human. She could love deeply and hate intensely. She could also be bitter—about how she had been exploited by the pro-choice people—and later taken advantage of by some pro-lifers. In short, Norma was a simple, down-to-earth person that ambled into one of the most heated and intractable controversies of modern times, was subjected to all of its slings and arrows, yet never lost who she was, whether for good or for bad.
I came to accept Norma as a very complicated person—and how could she have been otherwise? She grew up in a violently abusive home, was repeatedly raped by a relative, dropped out of school, shoplifted and was sent to a juvenile facility until she was 16. She married as a teenager and gave birth to a daughter, eventually lost custody of the baby, divorced, and later gave birth to another child and surrendered her for adoption. In 1970, Norma was unmarried and pregnant with her third child when two feminist lawyers recruited her to be the subject of their lawsuit seeking to overturn restrictive abortion laws in the state of Texas. Norma wasn’t seeking to spark any kind of social movement. She was simply lonely, broke, and addicted and saw no other opportunity to get out of her mess than to abort a child she couldn’t afford financially or emotionally. She would never have that abortion, or any abortion, though. Instead, as her lawsuit meandered through the courts, she gave birth to her third girl and gave her up for adoption, too.
And there was the most complicated element of all for Norma, her long-time lesbian partner, Connie Gonzalez. After Norma’s commitment to Jesus Christ as her Lord and Savior, she renounced her homosexuality and declared Connie to be simply a good friend. Nothing about that was easy, and the relationship ended acrimoniously. For some of my fundamentalist friends, even that episode in Norma’s life was understandable compared to her later decision to become a Catholic. She had been a secular, gay, pro-choice hellion—became a born-again, Bible-believing Christian—then, a devout, mass attending Roman Catholic. As uncomfortable as that move was for some, I thought she flourished in what would be her last earthly spiritual home.
Not everyone has good things to say about Norma McCorvey, but I do. She was genuine, transparent, poignant, brave, bold, dedicated, and, at times, hilarious. I’ll miss her greatly. Heaven is surely richer for her arrival, but the earth is poorer for her departure.
Norma was far from perfect, but who isn’t? If she was anything, Norma McCorvey was a sinner saved by grace—and she knew it and was thankful for it.
“Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him” (1 Thessalonians 4:13-14).