Norma McCorvey, the “Jane Roe” of Roe v. Wade, died on February 18, 2017, due to heart failure. She was 69 years old.

Her name – or rather her pseudonym – remains symbolic of a watershed event in the sexual revolution: the moment when abortion was fully legalized in the United States.

For years, pro-choice activists celebrated her as a figurehead for the advance of their movement. Conversely, pro-life advocates viewed her as a forerunner of the culture of death that has claimed almost 60 million unborn children in the 40-plus years since her court case.

Given that she was best known by an assumed name, it might be expected that other parts of her story are not what they seem. For instance, during the last two decades of her life, Roe (or rather McCorvey) had come to renounce abortion and embrace the pro-life cause as her own.

A difficult and complicated life

McCorvey began her journey toward Roe v. Wade in 1969 as a divorced, homeless and pregnant 22-year-old living in Dallas. She wanted an abortion but was too poor to travel to one of the few states where it was legal at the time. As it happened, two young lawyers fresh out of law school, Sarah Weddington and Linda Coffee, were looking for a case they could use to overturn the abortion laws in Texas.

Weddington and Coffee recruited McCorvey over pizza and beer and together they chose the legal pseudonym “Jane Roe” for their class action suit. A high school dropout at age 14, McCorvey didn’t actually know what an abortion entailed. Her attorneys assured her it was just the removal of a bit of tissue, and that it would be like passing her period.

After that initial meeting, McCorvey only met with her lawyers one more time, to sign a one-page affidavit that she never read. She never appeared or testified at the trial that bore her fictitious name. And she never had an abortion, having long since given birth to a daughter – whom she put up for adoption – by the time the Supreme Court ruling was handed down in 1973.

During the years that followed Roe v. Wade, McCorvey settled into a long-term lesbian relationship and worked at a series of abortion clinics. She made public appearances on the anniversaries of her court case and rubbed elbows with prominent pro-choice celebrities.

From pro-choice icon to pro-life advocate

In time, however, McCorvey started to doubt her convictions. The pro-life Operation Rescue opened an office next to her clinic, and she began interacting with evangelical Christians who shared the Gospel with her and invited her to church. She was haunted by images of children and empty playgrounds as she worked at the abortion clinic. Finally she had a dramatic change of heart; she quit her job at the clinic, got baptized and wound up joining the Catholic Church. “Jane Roe,” the onetime symbol of the pro-choice movement, had become a staunch pro-life advocate.

By their nature, symbols are clear and uncomplicated. The lines are drawn sharply between black and white. Real people, however, are far more shaded and complex, Norma McCorvey more so than most. Many aspects of her turbulent life don’t fit comfortably into an ideological narrative, either pro-choice or pro-life.

And yet, her life is a demonstration that God changes hearts, even in the most unlikely circumstances. He may not always change them as neatly or as promptly as we’d prefer, but that just serves to remind us that people – and their lives – are messy.

The message to be taken from Norma McCorvey’s life is perhaps best summed up by Justin Taylor at the Gospel Coalition:

“Evangelicals must not only labour to protect the unborn, but to continue reaching out with assistance and love and the good news of grace to the Norma McCorveys of the world – broken women who feel they have no other place to turn.”

Sources and further reading

Steven Ertelt, “Norma McCorvey, Jane Roe of Roe v. Wade, passes away: She never had an abortion and became pro-life,” LifeNews, February 18, 2017.

Bre Payton, “Norma McCorvey, Jane Roe of Roe v. Wade, dies a pro-life activist,” The Federalist, February 19, 2017.

Joshua Prager, “The accidental activist,” Vanity Fair, February 2013.

Avi Selk, “‘Jane Roe’ made abortion legal. Then a minister made her rethink,” Washington Post, February 18, 2017.

Justin Taylor, “5 things you didn’t know about ‘Jane Roe’,” The Gospel Coalition, January 22, 2013.

© 2019 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

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