God is in the faith details? The messy, complicated lives of Norma 'Jane Roe' McCorvey

If you ever talked with Norma McCorvey, you know that there was one thing that she wanted journalists to do more than anything else: To tell her story, with all of its messy and complicated details.

She had more than her share of regrets. She had deep sorrows and, through the years, crossed an ocean of shame. As "Jane Roe" of Roe v. Wade she was a footnote in just about every textbook used in an American History class, at any level of education. Yet, from her point of view, she was famous because of a lie at the heart of her own life.

She knew that she could not make her lies go away. But she did want journalists to allow Americans to hear her tell the story of when she lied, why she lied and how she came to regret what legal activists built with the help of her most famous lie. Thus, she told her story over and over and over, while also trying to walk the walk of a conception to natural death Catholic pro-lifer.

The key point: For McCorvey, her adult life begins with lies and ends with attempts to live out the truth. For those on the cultural left, her public life began with truth and then sank into sad confusion and religious sentiment.

Now McCorvey has died, at age 69. That means that almost every newsroom in America will offer some version of her story -- one last time. How many of the scandalous details of her complicated life will make it into print? When looking at the mainstream obits, there is one key detail to examine: How seriously did each news organization take McCorvey's conversion to Roman Catholicism?

Let's start with the Associated Press, since that feature will appear in the vast majority of American newspapers. To its credit, the AP piece puts both halves of the McCorvey journey in the lede, where they belong.

DALLAS (AP) -- Norma McCorvey, whose legal challenge under the pseudonym “Jane Roe” led to the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision that legalized abortion but who later became an outspoken opponent of the procedure, died Saturday. She was 69.

A few lines later there is this crucial summary of her life -- stated from McCorvey's own point of view, drawn from an autobiography.

“I’m 100 percent pro-life. I don’t believe in abortion even in an extreme situation. If the woman is impregnated by a rapist, it’s still a child. You’re not to act as your own God,” she told The Associated Press in 1998.
After the court’s ruling, McCorvey had lived quietly for several years before revealing herself as Jane Roe in the 1980s. She also confessed to lying when she said the pregnancy was the result of rape.
Throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s, she remained an ardent supporter of abortion rights and worked for a time at a Dallas women’s clinic where abortions were performed.
Her 1994 autobiography, “I Am Roe: My Life, Roe v. Wade, and Freedom of Choice,” included abortion-rights sentiments along with details about dysfunctional parents, reform school, petty crime, drug abuse, alcoholism, an abusive husband, an attempted suicide and lesbianism.

This brings us to a crucial point in the story: McCorvey was converted to Christianity, and became active in anti-abortion work, in the context of evangelical -- some would say "fundamentalist" -- Protestantism.

I am often amazed how few journalists realize that the pro-life movement is a large and complex thing. It ranges from genuine cultural liberals -- take Secular Pro-Life, Pro-Life Humanists and Atheists Against Abortion -- to a radical fringe whose acceptance of violence against abortionists is rejected by the overwhelming majority of activists in the movement.

The life stories of some activists begin in more radical groups and then swing into the mainstream. Often, the most extreme radicals are people who have been pushed out of mainstream groups because they refused to embrace the style and tactics of those in the mainstream.

The AP obit wades into this minefield, once again leaning on McCorvey interviews and her own writings. This is long, but essential:

... She was baptized before network TV cameras by a most improbable mentor: The Rev. Philip “Flip” Benham, the leader of Operation Rescue, now known as Operation Save America. McCorvey joined the cause and staff of Benham, who had befriended her when the anti-abortion group moved next door to the abortion clinic where she was working.

When I met McCorvey, she said that a crucial element of her conversion was her contact with the mothers and children of families involved in the anti-abortion protests. 

McCorvey also said that her religious conversion led her to give up her lover, Connie Gonzales. She said the relationship turned platonic in the early 1990s and that once she became a Christian she believed homosexuality was wrong. She recounted her evangelical conversion and stand against abortion in the January 1998 book “Won by Love,” which ends with McCorvey happily involved with Operation Rescue.
But by August of that year, she had changed faiths to Catholicism. And though she was still against abortion, she had left Operation Rescue, saying she had reservations about the group’s confrontational style.

The AP obit then wades into the long timeline of McCorvey's life and journey, including the messy personal details that led to the crisis pregnancy at the heart of the Roe case.

If you are looking for a McCorvey obit that takes a radically different approach, the best one to read is in The Washington Post, with the headline: "Norma McCorvey, Jane Roe of Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion nationwide, dies at 69."

But there is another Post piece, with another headline, that is getting quite a bit of push online.

Readers can also see this headline in the Post summary of the day's news, sent to online readers who are registered for this service.

Here is a screenshot of that.


The headline on this sidebar now reads: "‘Jane Roe’ made abortion legal. Then a minister made her rethink."

Suffice it to say, there is no branch of Christianity that believes that a minister can make someone repent of her or his sins. This is a terribly offensive headline and Post editors were right to change it.

But who crafted the original wording and put it into circulation in promotional materials? Who decided that she converted to a "cause," as opposed to a faith?

All in all, the Post coverage deals with the messy details of McCorvey's story, but consistently emphasizes the voice of Benham and stresses the Operation Rescue period in her life. This "Acts of Faith" feature focuses on that time period, alone.

There are many interesting details here -- but the word "Catholic" never appears in the "Acts of Faith" feature.

How is her conversion to Catholicism handled in the main Post obit? Here is the only passage that addresses key part of the final decades of her life:

She wrote another memoir, “Won By Love” (1997), with co-author Gary Thomas, founded the Dallas-based Roe No More ministry and reportedly became a Catholic. She participated in antiabortion protests and was arrested in 2009 for disrupting the Senate confirmation hearings on Sonia Sotomayor’s nomination to the Supreme Court.

The key word there, obviously, is "reportedly."

She "reportedly" became a Catholic? For two decades?

It would appear that, in the Post coverage, the word "reportedly" is used to describe material that McCorvey herself either wrote or said.

The bottom line: It would appear that, to Post editors, McCorvey is not a crucial voice in describing the second half of her own life. Should McCorvey have been allowed to offer testimony of her own (there are stacks of videos and texts to consult and possibly quote) in the debates about who she was and why she did what she did? 

Here is a key passage of the Post piece, which is extremely well written, but also captures the newspaper's approach to this topic. Once again, the key person interpreting McCorvey's Christian faith is Benham -- someone who would clash with the vast majority of Catholic pro-lifers on many issues of theology (to say the least) and tactics.

She admitted that she peddled misinformation about herself, lying about even the most crucial juncture in her life: For years, she claimed that the Roe pregnancy was the result of a rape. In 1987, she recanted, saying that she had become pregnant “through what I thought was love.” Although the details of her account were legally unimportant, abortion foes pointed to the lie to discredit Ms. McCorvey and her case.
According to the most sympathetic tellings of her story, she was a victim of abuse, financial hardship, drug and alcohol addiction, and personal frailty. For much of her life, she subsisted at the margins of society, making ends meet, according to various accounts, as a bartender, a maid, a roller-skating carhop and a house painter. She found a measure of stability with a lesbian partner, Connie Gonzalez, but even that relationship reportedly ended in bitterness after 35 years.
Harsher judgments presented Ms. McCorvey as a user who trolled for attention and cash. Abortion rights activists questioned her motives when she decamped in 1995, after years on their side, and was baptized in a swimming pool by the evangelical minister at the helm of the antiabortion group Operation Rescue.
The minister, Flip Benham, told Prager, who profiled Ms. McCorvey in Vanity Fair magazine in 2013, that he had come to see her as someone who “just fishes for money.”

Other than the "reportedly" reference mentioned above, the Post never deals with McCorvey's adult conversion into the church of Rome. Why leave this massive hole in her story?

The New York Times obituary includes an early mention of this Catholic conversion as a key fact in her life and, later, briefly documents the role that her Catholic faith played in some of her work as an activist.

... She attended rallies and protest marches in support of abortion rights, worked in women’s clinics, spoke to crowds, wrote two autobiographies and was the subject of a documentary and an avalanche of newspaper and magazine articles. She became a national celebrity of sorts.
She also switched sides, from abortion rights advocate to anti-abortion campaigner. She underwent two religious conversions, as a born-again Christian and as a Roman Catholic, and became in her last decades a staunch foe of abortion, vowing to undo Roe v. Wade, testifying in Congress and bitterly attacking Barack Obama when he ran for president and then re-election.

This is a complicated and very messy story. It contains many issues that are worthy of debate, with voices speaking out on both sides.

I really appreciated this final paragraph in the Times coverage, with its reference to the famous lawyer who pushed and pushed to bring the Roe case to the U.S. Supreme Court:

In 2016, “Roe,” a play by Lisa Loomer, featuring Ms. McCorvey and Ms. Weddington as protagonists, opened at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. The playwright told The Times: “Sarah Weddington, when she approaches the subject of Roe v. Wade, it’s about the law. It’s about choice. It’s about doing something to impact the lives of all women. For Norma McCorvey, Roe is about her. It’s utterly personal.”

In conclusion, here is the central journalism question: Why leave McCorvey's own voice out of these debates about her life?

Contrast the material contained in the AP obit with the coverage in the Washington Post. What is the "big idea" in these two radically different pieces? Which one allows McCorvey to help tell her own story?

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