Forty-four years later abortion is still legal, but the woman who helped make it so has died. Norma McCorvey, better known as Roe, died Feb. 18, at the age of 69. Ms. McCorvey is known for the role she played in the landmark case Roe v. Wade, which instituted federal protections for abortions across the United States. In contemplating Ms. McCorvey’s life and death, it is hard to say whether she was a hero for the left or the right — or not one at all. This is an important question to consider as both pro-choice and pro-life activists grasp for gods and heroes to help them gain victory in a cultural war over abortion that is only increasing in intensity since the election of Donald Trump.
Ms. McCorvey was 22 and pregnant for the third time when she sought an abortion in Texas. Unable to get one, she turned to two lawyers, Linda Coffee and Sarah Weddington, who were looking for an unhappily pregnant woman to use as a plaintiff in an anti-abortion lawsuit. Though the lawyers won abortion rights for millions of women in America they didn’t win the right for their own client. The case took three years to make it through the court system and thus Ms. McCorvey never got her abortion, a fact she resented. “I don’t require that much in my life,” she claimed in 1994. “I just never had the privilege to go into an abortion clinic, lay down, and have an abortion.”
Roe v. Wade defined McCorvey’s life almost as much as it defined the cultural and political landscape that followed it. She revealed her real name to the public in the 1980’s and came out as a stark defender of abortion rights. McCorvey spoke at abortion rallies and worked at an abortion clinic. She wrote a memoir in 1994 about her role in Roe v. Wade entitled, “I Am Roe.” She was, for a time, the hero of abortion rights advocates. Ms. McCorvey never felt like she could live up to their standards, however.
In an astounding about-face, McCorvey became a Christian and joined the pro-life movement. McCorvey’s conversion came about after Flip Benham, the head of a pro-life group named Operation Rescue, opened an office next door to the abortion clinic she was working at. Wearing a shirt that read “100% Pro-life, Without Exception, Without Compromise, Without Apology,” Ms. McCorvey would often attend pro-life rallies. In 1997, McCorvey wrote another book, entitled “Won by Love,” in which she described her conversion story. She explained how those in Operation Rescue protested outside her abortion clinic and how she regularly cursed at them — only to receive affirmations in return.
“The war that went on in front of our clinic became a war of love and hatred,” she wrote. “They never backed down from calling what I was doing sin, but while they showed a rock-hard opposition to everything I stood for, at the same time they displayed an incredible openness to reach out to me as a person.”
On the 25th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, McCorvey told CNN, “I’m very sad [about the anniversary]. But this year, I’ve got so much to do, I don’t have time to sit down and be sad.” Some regard Ms. McCorvey’s conversion as more of a career move than a change of heart. According to a 2013 Vanity Fair profile, she charged a $1,000 interview fee and took an annual salary of $40,000 from her pro-life nonprofit, Roe No More.
The left’s degradation of their former hero is understandable. Ms. McCorvey does not fit into their feminist liberal typology and thus self-interest, they claim — not the truth about the horrors of abortion — must drive her. This is not to say that Ms. McCorvey is a candidate for sainthood or that the right should hold her up as a trophy. Her role in Roe v. Wade is to be lamented, just as her work to undo some of the harm is to be praised. She was a broken woman who made some horrible decisions, one of which has dictated the battle line between conservatives and liberals for the past 44 years. Her death comes at a time when the sword of partisanship is drawing ever deeper and ever wider lines.
Just one day after Donald Trump and Mike Pence, the most pro-life vice president we have ever had, were sworn in, millions of women flooded cities all over the country in an attempt to protect what Ms. McCorvey helped give them — the freedom to extinguish the life of their unborn children. Just seven days after the inauguration, millions of people gathered in D.C. to protest this so called freedom — just as McCorvey had done herself for 20 years. In another move, likely to cause ire among liberal activists, President Trump announced Neil Gorsuch as his pick for Supreme Court Justice. Gorsuch is a proponent of defunding Planned Parenthood and is widely expected to follow Justice Scalia’s lead in opposing abortion, While Trump’s election has deflated the progress of abortion activism, it has enlivened the hope of the pro-life movement. In the future, this year might not only be known for the death of Norma McCorvey, but for the death of one she fought so hard against — that of Roe v. Wade.