Norma McCorvey could outcuss the crassest men; she could outdrink many of the Dallas taverns' regulars; and she was known for her hot temper. When pro-lifers called her a murderer, she called them worse. When people held up signs of aborted fetuses, Norma spit in their faces.
She had a reputation to protect, after all. As the plaintiff in the infamous Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade, Norma's life was inextricably tied up with abortion. Though she had never had one, abortion was the sun around which Norma's life orbited. She once told a reporter, "This issue is the only thing I live for. I live, eat, breathe, think everything about abortion."
Then the fiery pro-life group Operation Rescue moved in next door.
An Unlikely Friendship
Operation Rescue has had a tumultuous history. Founded by Randall Terry, OR made international headlines in the late eighties by staging "sit-ins" at abortion clinics across the country. Almost immediately, the pro-life movement was split between those who supported OR and those who thought they were doing more harm than good. A few people stood in the middle, but not many.
Terry stepped down from OR in 1990, and his successor, Keith Tucci, followed suit a few years later. Flip Benham became director in 1994. By this time, federal legislation and extreme penalties for a first-time offense made the well-attended rescues largely a thing of the past. OR's influence was clearly on the wane, but their move next door to Norma's abortion clinic, A Choice for Women, would change that overnight.
Norma called Flip Benham, the brash and bold OR leader, Flip "Venom." Flip called Norma "responsible for the deaths of 35 million children." They were supposed to be sworn enemies, but due to the persistence of a local real estate agent, they became next-door neighbors whose offices shared a common wall in a building off the LBJ highway in the Lake Highlands area of North Dallas.
After OR moved to this location, the Dallas police settled down to an almost hourly routine. The bleep-bleep of a police siren and flashing blue lights could be heard and seen several times a day for the next few months as the two sides clashed out in the parking lot.
Occasionally, the clashes would collapse into conversation. During one friendly exchange, Norma goaded Flip, "You need to go to a good Beach Boys concert."
"Miss Norma," Flip answered, "I haven't been to a Beach Boys concert since 1976."
The innocuous response shook Norma. "All at once," she says, "Flip became human to me. Before, I had thought of [Flip] as a man who did nothing but yell at abortion clinics and read his Bible. The thought that he was a real person—a guy who had once even gone to a Beach Boys concert—never occurred to me. Now that it had, I saw him in a new light." As they chatted outside on the bench between their offices, however, Flip began sharing some stories of his past, and out of this vulnerability an unlikely friendship was born.
Other OR volunteers also began reaching out to Norma. In return, Norma explained her crystals and book of Runes. It wasn't exactly Elijah and the prophets of Baal, but in both minds it was clearly a case of "may the true God win."
A Mother’s Heart
As Norma's mind was challenged to consider the truth of the gospel, God began working on her heart through a seven-year-old girl named Emily, the daughter of OR volunteer Ronda Mackey. Quite understandably, Norma had difficulty relating to children. She had given birth to three, all of whom had been placed for adoption (one of them against Norma's will). And because she worked in an abortion clinic, Norma was fearful of bonding with anyone so young. "It was part of my denial," she explains. "When you know what is happening to the children behind closed doors, it's difficult to become attached to them outside."
Emily's blatant affection, frequent hugs, and direct pursuit disarmed Norma. The little girl's interest was all the more surprising considering Emily made it very clear that her acceptance of Norma wasn't an acceptance of Norma's lifestyle. Early on in their relationship, Norma explained to Emily, "I like kids and wouldn't let anyone hurt little kids," to which Emily responded, "Then why do you let them kill the babies at the clinic?"
This childlike innocence cut open Norma's heart. Norma wasn't won over by compelling, intellectual arguments. While the OR adults targeted Norma's mind, Emily went straight for the heart. Over time, Emily began to personify the issue of abortion—especially when Ronda broke down and told Norma that Emily had almost been aborted.
Ronda was engaged when Emily was conceived, and nobody was very happy about the pregnancy. Ronda's future in-laws, her mother, and her fiance all pressured her to get an abortion during the first trimester. Ronda admits that she gave abortion serious consideration, at one point even saying she would pursue it. Yet memories of a high-school friend's emotional devastation following an abortion strengthened Ronda's resolve to let Emily live.
Shortly after Ronda told Norma this story, the two were shopping with Ronda's girls. Norma, who has a decidedly mystical bent to her nature, was stunned when she saw Ronda's bumper sticker, "Abortion Stops a Beating Heart," which has a vivid, red heart on the side.
Norma saw Emily's heart in that sticker; it just about destroyed her when she realized that "my law" (as she once fondly referred to Roe v. Wade ) made it legal to snuff out young Emily's life. Norma asked to be taken home immediately, but later that afternoon she spent over an hour on the phone with Ronda and their deep friendship was solidified.
Norma was forever changed by this experience. For her, abortion was no longer an "abstract right," because it had a face in a little girl named Emily.
Blue Collar, Ivy League Clash
Emotionally, Norma was ready for a change. Her alienation from the abortion movement was practically legendary, even before she became a Christian. Most of the abortion advocacy movement was afraid of her blue collar, tough talking, and unrefined ways. Norma was raised as a poor Louisiana girl who spent a good part of her childhood in reform schools. She ran away from home when she was ten and spent several decades supporting herself with odd jobs—as a carnival barker, a waitress, a bartender, apartment cleaner, construction worker, and the like.
Norma spoke her mind, and the abortion movement's leadership kept as wide a hedge around her as possible. Norma wasn't asked to address the huge 1989 march in Washington, nor was she even invited to the 1993 twentieth anniversary celebration of Roe v. Wade.
Such a blatant snub had understandable roots. She frequently caught abortion clinic directors off guard by openly questioning the morality of some (particularly late-term) abortions. And she had experienced a raucous falling out with her attorney, Sarah Weddington, whom Norma believed had "dumped" her.
The falling out with Weddington hurt Norma the most. Explains Norma, "I was chosen [to sign the affidavit] because Sarah Weddington needed someone who would sign the paper and fade into the background, never coming out and always keeping silent. Ideally, in their minds, I would have just stayed quiet, gotten on with my life, and quietly suffered, eventually committing suicide. I would have been much more useful to them, not to mention famous, if I had died young. As long as I was alive, I was a danger. I might speak out. I could be unpredictable. And I was."
of my sin pushing down on my
shoulders," Norma remembers.
As Norma's friendship with Benham drew national attention, Norma started receiving even more ridicule from her abortion advocate "friends." She soon found herself in the uncomfortable situation of being increasingly alienated from those on her side of the issue and befriended by her alleged enemies. Before long, Norma started coming to work simply so she could talk to the rescuers. She was scheduled to work just two days a week, but, she says, "I couldn't wait that long to get one of Emily's hugs."
Norma felt torn apart by the fact that four days a week she and Ronda—not to mention the other rescue volunteers—were best friends, while on the other three days—when abortions were actually performed—they were bitter enemies.
During one abortion-day confrontation, Norma charged up to Anne Hollacher, an OR volunteer who was holding a picket sign, and yelled, "You can't park on the same place you're picketing. Move the car!"
"No, I'm not moving my car," Anne responded. "This is our parking lot, too."
Norma called Anne every name she could think of, which was usually enough to make the toughest protesters wilt, but Anne maintained her composure. When Norma saw that Anne wouldn't budge, she spit in her face.
Norma was furious. "How dare you look at me like that?" she screamed. "How dare you smile at me?"
Anne politely wiped the spit off her face with her sleeve. "Jesus loves you, and so do I," she said. "And I forgive you."
It would have taken several clinic workers to pull Norma away from Anne except that Norma suddenly experienced severe chest pains and had to remove herself from the scene to catch her breath.
Five minutes later, Ronda and the girls showed up, the girls eager to give Norma a hug, and Norma was overwhelmed by such a generous display of love after she had nursed so bitter a hatred.
The confusion inside Norma became intense. She couldn't stand the thought of losing Ronda's friendship, and she wasn't about to let Emily be taken out of her life. But how long could they maintain a friendship when abortion stood between them?
The Little Evangelist
"Miss Norma," Emily cooed one afternoon, "it would be so-o-o cool if you would come to church with us."
Norma didn't want to disappoint Emily directly, so she answered, "Well, Emily, we'll have to be cool another time. I can't go to church with you this weekend."
If Norma didn't want to offend Emily by an abrupt denial, she needn't have worried. Not about to give up, Emily kept asking Norma to come with her to church.
Finally, Norma said yes—not out of a sudden need for God in her life, but because she was tired of telling Emily no.
Ronda was skeptical, but when they went to pick up Norma, she was dressed and ready to go. One sermon was all Norma needed. Pastor Morris Sheats of Hillcrest Church ended his sermon with a compelling evangelistic call, asking, "Is anyone here tired of living a sinner's life?" and immediately Norma felt overwhelmed by her need to respond.
"How could I say no?" Norma recalls. "I had been tired of it for years, but it was the only life I knew!" Norma cautiously raised her hand, then opened her eyes "and looked up to see if that really was my hand raised up high. It was. I couldn't believe it."
Ronda recalls Norma repeating over and over, "I just want to undo all the evil I've done in this world. I'm so sorry, God. I'm so, so sorry. As far as abortion is concerned, I just want to undo it. I want it all to just go away."
Finally, Norma stopped crying and broke into the biggest smile of her life. "I no longer felt the pressure of my sin pushing down on my shoulders," she remembers. "The release was so quick that I felt like I could almost float outside."
When Norma's conversion became public knowledge, she spoke openly to reporters about still supporting legalized pregnancy termination in the first trimester. The media were quick to use this to downplay the seriousness of Norma's conversion, saying she typified the "general ambivalence" of our culture over abortion.
But a few weeks after her conversion, Norma was sitting in OR's offices when she noticed a fetal development poster. Explains Norma, "The progression was so obvious, the eyes were so sweet. … It hurt my heart, just looking at them."
Norma ran outside. "Finally, it dawned on me. 'Norma,' I said to myself, 'They're right.' I had worked with pregnant women for years. I had been through three pregnancies and deliveries myself. I should have known. Yet something in that poster made me lose my breath. I kept seeing the picture of that tiny, ten-week-old embryo, and I said to myself, 'That's a baby!' It's as if blinders just fell off my eyes and I suddenly understood the truth—'that's a baby!' "
Norma felt "crushed" under the truth of this realization. "I had to face up to the awful reality. Abortion wasn't about 'products of conception.' It wasn't about 'missed periods.' It was about children being killed in their mother's wombs. All those years, I was wrong."
A New Life
Two years after her conversion, Norma left Operation Rescue. After a grueling 11-day encounter in San Diego in 1996, she began having serious reservations about whether she was "cut out" for the intense confrontations that often face rescue volunteers. She also had a difficult time operating under Benham's leadership, eventually believing that they made better friends than co-workers. Because of her loyalty and affection for the people involved in rescue, however, it took her until the early summer of 1997 to complete the break.
Ronda Mackey has joined Norma in leaving OR, and the two women have set up a ministry to handle Norma's increasing invitations to speak and appear at pro-life events. Instead of being under the OR umbrella, Norma now reports regularly to the pastors at Hillcrest Church.
Norma's conversion is one for the ages. The timing was precise—OR was next door to Norma's clinic for less than a year, but it wasn't until Norma had a regenerated heart that the truth of what abortion does could find a place in her intellect. Once that truth took hold, there was no turning back.
"I'm one hundred percent sold out to Jesus and one hundred percent pro-life," she likes to say. "No exceptions. No compromise."
Gary Thomas is a coauthor with Norma McCorvey of Won by Love, the story of Norma's conversion, published this month by Thomas Nelson Publishers.
Copyright © 1998 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
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