Roe vs. Wade plaintiff discusses change of heart McCorvey addresses Catonsville church about her conversion

January 26, 1998|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

Twenty-five years ago, Norma McCorvey gave birth to something she wishes she hadn't: Roe vs. Wade.

"I had never really put a face to abortion," the former Jane Roe told several hundred congregants yesterday at Bishop Cummins Memorial Reformed Episcopal Church in Catonsville, where she discussed her 3-year-old conversion to the anti-abortion movement. "If the Lord can forgive a person like me, who was hard-core, pro-abortion, who never thought of anyone besides herself maybe there's hope for others."

Pregnant and wishing she wasn't, McCorvey signed a legal affidavit as "Jane Roe," agreeing to the use of her case in a class-action suit to make abortion legal. By the time the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in her favor Jan. 22, 1973, McCorvey's need for abortion was past -- she had given her daughter up for adoption.

But through the intervening years, she says now, she questioned the rightness of abortion -- even when she became active in the feminist movement and worked in a Dallas abortion clinic, helping women make appointments to end their pregnancies.

Now McCorvey is on a tour to promote her new book, "Won by Love," which details her conversion from abortion clinic worker to born-again Christian. She is running a ministry called "Roe No More," which hopes to provide mobile counseling to pregnant women in far-flung Texas towns.

Yesterday, she was preaching to the faithful. Bishop Cummins is led by rector and senior pastor the Rev. Paul Schenck, a friend of McCorvey's who is known nationally as a demonstrator and activist against abortion. The church also sponsors outreach projects to encourage women not to end their pregnancies. Yesterday, church members sold pins shaped like the feet of a 10-week-old fetus and encouraged congregants to take baby bottles home, to bring back later with change that could be put toward helping pregnant women have their children.

While those who listened to McCorvey hoped her change would help to prompt a change in the law, an abortion rights advocate downplayed the importance of her switch.

"I don't think the fact that Norma McCorvey has changed her stand means anything for the overall issue politically," said Karyn Strickler, a lobbyist for the Maryland affiliate of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League. "The bottom line is that women have always had abortions. They will always have abortions, whether abortion is safe and legal or whether they have to risk their lives to get abortions.

"I too have worked in abortion clinics," Strickler said. "My work in abortion clinics did not change my opinion that abortion needs to be safe and legal for women."

Dressed in a brown sweater dress with a gold crucifix dangling from her neck, McCorvey, 50, came across as a kindly but knowing grandmother who had only recently shed a saltier side.

In an interview, she spoke in a soft Texas drawl of her days as a "big ol' sinner" who drowned the horrors of the clinic in "liquid dinners" -- but gradually came to respect the abortion opponents who had been her enemies.

Once, in the quiet of an empty abortion room, McCorvey said she climbed up on the cold surgical table and lay there, imagining what it would be like to go through the procedure.

"What I wanted to understand was why everybody wanted to get on the table," McCorvey said. "I was trying to figure out what it was. Why? I saw three or four different women come in twice in a year and a half."

The national headquarters of the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue, with its leader the Rev. Philip "Flip" Benham, moved next door to the abortion clinic where McCorvey worked in March 1995. They were not the friendliest of neighbors. McCorvey and Benham, who had met before on opposite sides of demonstrations, had a hostile relationship.

But in just a few months, proximity begat a thaw.

"After all the years of cussing them, and telling them we killed however many children, it just didn't seem like anything I'd do moved them," McCorvey said.

She gradually became friends with Operation Rescue office manager Ronda Mackey and her daughters, one of whom kept inviting McCorvey to church.

When she learned that that child, Emily, had almost been aborted, McCorvey said her mind began to change. On July 22, 1995, attending church with the Mackeys, McCorvey became a born-again Christian.

McCorvey now calls herself "pro-life," abortion clinics "mills," and the people who work in them "pro-abortion." She lived as a lesbian for 26 years, she says, but ended that lifestyle in 1991 and now calls gay people "Sodomites."

But she maintains she is essentially the same person, that she has some of the same "pro-abortion" friends -- just that her life has a lot more love and happiness.

"When I came to the Lord, he didn't change me in any way," McCorvey said. "I still have the same personality."

Church members who heard McCorvey's words were elated at her conversion.

"I just felt like she found herself," said Dolores Ford, 73, of Catonsville. "God found her, and now she's one of us."

"I saw a lot of people blowing their noses," said Pati Verrecchio, 39, of Catonsville, referring to how moved she was by McCorvey. "I would hope that people would see that no matter how hard somebody's heart is toward the pro-life movement, that can change."

For her part, McCorvey said she's under no illusion that she can single-handedly take back the law she set into motion.

"Women are going to do with their bodies what they want to do, no matter what I say or anyone else," she said. "If anybody asked me what they should do, I would tell them what the Lord's done for me."

Pub Date: 1/26/98

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