Lessons for Pro-Life Advocates
Norma McCorvey was the anonymous plaintiff in Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court decision in 1973 that legalized abortion. McCorvey never had an abortion and later became an outspoken opponent of abortion. She died in 2017, and a recently released documentary, “AKA Jane Roe,” makes the claim that she was never really pro-life and was paid by pro-life advocates for her activism.
Whether you are familiar with Norma McCorvey or not, the following article will bring perspective to a very interesting and complicated story. It was written by Dr. Al Mohler before the documentary was released.
An Ugly and Complex Story: Norma McCorvey from Roe v. Wade Said She Was Paid to Change Her Views on Abortion
By any measure, it is a blockbuster headline. Yesterday from the BBC, “Woman Behind U.S. Abortion Ruling was Paid to Recant.” The report from the British Broadcasting Corporation tells us, “The woman behind the 1973 ruling legalizing abortion in the United States is seen admitting in a new documentary that her stunning change of heart on the issue later in life was all an act. Norma McCorvey, known as Jane Roe, in the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade, shocked the country in 1995 when she came out against abortion, but in new footage, McCorvey alleges she was paid to switch sides.” There’s a huge amount of information here and it is a story that quickly demands our attention.
We are told that the woman identified as “behind the Roe v. Wade decision,” who came out against abortion later in life, was financially enticed to do so. Let’s look in the first place at the claim that she was, as Norma McCorvey, the woman behind the Roe v. Wade decision. That’s the way she’s identified. Is that true or is that false? Well, a little bit of both. It’s false in the sense that the decision would have come regardless of the name on the decision and the name was itself anonymous. She’s identified as Jane Roe. Her real name was Norma McCorvey. But at the same time, she was the single individual woman whose case was taken all the way to the Supreme Court that eventuated in the Roe v. Wade decision. One of the ironies is Norma McCorvey never actually had an abortion. She gave her babies up for adoption.
This also tells us a great deal about how this kind of case on a major constitutional issue makes its way to the Supreme Court. The two big cases were Roe and Doe, as they were known. Both of the cases had placeholder names in the place of the women, but the women had to be real women and they had to be granted some kind of real claim and real standing in order to have their cases heard. One of the things you need to keep in mind on big constitutional cases like this is that many of the activists actually shop for a certain kind of person to have as the lead plaintiff in a case. In this case, it was Norma McCorvey. They were looking for a woman, they had to find a woman, who was seeking an abortion in the state of Texas and been denied one. If they hadn’t found such a woman, there would have been no case.
But they were also looking, as they often do look, for a woman whose particulars will aid their case. And in the case, for instance, of the legalization of same sex marriage, activist groups were looking for just the right kind of same sex couple to serve as plaintiffs in that kind of case. But looking back at Norma McCorvey, it was clear in the beginning that this was a very awkward situation. It was awkward in the sense that she had already delivered the baby by the time the Supreme Court came even close to hearing her case. But the point is, this was a major question in constitutional law and her name, or the placeholder for her name, actually is what is emblazoned now in American history in a very infamous history when it comes to America and abortion.
But now the infamy, the shame in this entire case, the confusion over the entire case gets only deeper with this report that Norma McCorvey, who had later in life repudiated abortion, was actually paid to do so. That’s the claim that is made. The BBC report goes right to this video that is going to be released in a documentary later this week. We are told, “In her deathbed confession, as she calls it, a visibly ailing McCorvey says she only became an anti-abortion activist because she was paid by evangelical groups.” She’s quoted as saying, “I was the big fish. I think it was a mutual thing. I took their money and they put me out in front of the cameras and tell me what to say.” The BBC summarizes the situation later in the story, by saying that she had had a conversion in the mid 1990s to become a born again Christian. She, at that point, disavowed a woman with whom she had been in a relationship though she continued to live with the woman, but at the same time, she also emerged as a spokesperson against abortion. But the claim is that she did that while being paid to do so.
CBS News reports that particular this way. “McCorvey, the face of the abortion rights movement at the time, came out against abortion in 1995, after purportedly finding religion at the hands of an evangelical minister. She went on to publicly participate in anti-abortion rights protests for the next two decades and even published a memoir in 1998, explaining her decision to change sides.” During that time, she had given an interview to CBS Sunday Morning. Remember CBS is now reporting the story in which Norma McCorvey had said, “I’m on what I call the right side of the movement now because I’m fighting for life instead of death.” When asked if she thought Roe v. Wade would be overturned, she told CBS Sunday Morning, “Yes, I hope so.” CBS then goes on to say her decision was national news at the time and marked a major victory for the anti-abortion rights movement.
Now CBS News says what she has called her deathbed confession has “upended the narrative once again.” Well, yes, in a sense it has. It certainly raises some very crucial moral issues, including for evangelicals and the pro-life movement. It’s important also to look at the story and recognize that the media are pouncing on this as evidence of the fact that there’s a vast conspiracy to deny women what the vast majority of those in the media will assert is her right to an abortion.
You have to look at the story a little closer. It’s not prettier the closer you look. Norma McCorvey was always a troubled person. She acknowledged that. For one thing, whether it was the pro-abortion side or the pro-life side, both of them had to be very careful in using Norma McCorvey in public as the media reports have indicated if nothing else, because of her salty language.
Over the decades in relating her own story, Norma McCorvey told of many struggles and trials of sexual assault, which she had suffered as a young girl, and also the fact that even as you tell her story, she was not only married at one point, a relationship she said was also abusive, but she was also involved in LGBTQ relationships, including some related from her own telling of the story from when she was a child or a teenager and others from when she was an adult. One of the interesting claims made by some of the press reports is that she was a major figure in the pro-abortion movement until she switched sides. That’s not exactly true. She was not all that well known in many pro-abortion circles because after all, her case had been anonymous. But furthermore, that movement itself had not sought to put her out in front very often, an issue of which Norma McCorvey, often herself complained.
She complained that the abortion rights movement had used her case, but had robbed her of her voice. She certainly did have a voice when in the mid 1990s, she did to a great deal of publicity, switch sides in the argument. She also indicated that she had had a born-again Christian experience. All that did, of course, become a part of the evangelical story in the United States and it was a major development in the pro-life, anti-abortion movement.
The claims here are pretty sensational. The Guardian, a liberal newspaper in London, tells us that according to the documentary not yet released, Norma McCorvey “received at least $456,000 in benevolent gifts from the anti-abortion movement in exchange for her conversion.” Now again, a very interesting and troubling story. Is it true or is it false? Well, at this point, you have some of those who were involved in what she claims was a financial enticement for her to switch sides, or at least a financial enticement for her to talk about switching sides.
Well, even some of them apparently have affirmed that there was some transfer of money. What are evangelical Christians to think about this? Well, all Christians should recognize that it is never right to present something falsely in public. That’s just never right. It’s another form of misrepresentation, otherwise known as dishonesty. It’s never right to present something as what it is not, as something other than what it is. And in this case, we don’t know at this point, if Norma McCorvey actually did switch sides on the issue of abortion. We don’t know if she actually or believed herself to have had a born-again Christian experience. That’s what we were told at the time. We took it at face value. Now we know there was a financial incentive behind it, but they’re classified as benevolent gifts. We really don’t know if the gifts came after she had made this switch or before.
In any event it’s complicated, but the timing of all of this really would make a moral difference. The documentary is not yet released. We can’t make a judgment about it yet, but the news about it is already ricocheting around the world. Is this going to be a major embarrassment to the pro-life cause? Well, it’s an embarrassment even now that these stories have appeared. It will be a greater embarrassment if it appears that Norma McCorvey was paid to lie. The story, as it is revealed, I think will probably be a good deal more complicated than that, if only for the simple reason that Norma McCorvey was tragically, extremely complicated. That comes up in another way in the media reports about what she calls her deathbed confession.
For example, one of the most interesting statements in the entire documentary as reported in the media is when McCorvey was asked by the interviewer, “It was all an act?” Her response was this and I quote, “Yeah, I did it well too. I’m a good actress. Of course, I’m not acting now.” This reminds us of a logical and moral quandary that is as old as ancient Greece and it’s also cited by the apostle Paul in the New Testament. It is the Cretan paradox. If it is true that all Cretans are liars, then can you trust a Cretan when you are told that he or she is lying? The Apostle Paul’s reference to this Cretan paradox is found in the letter to Titus, Titus 1:12. The point is this. It is a very interesting logical question. If indeed, you are told that the person speaking to you is lying, then is that person to be trusted when that person says he or she is lying? Well, that’s the paradox you see here. When Norma McCorvey says she was lying, but she’s not lying now, how do we know?
She said, “I’m a good actress. Of course, I’m not acting now.” Well, it is the paradox all over again. When someone tells you they were acting, but they’re not acting now, how do you know who’s acting when? This does not in any way absolve any evangelical figure or any pro-life leader from the wrongness of misrepresentation and this is an ugly story. It’s complex, but it’s undeniably ugly. (https://albertmohler.com/2020/05/21/briefing-5-21-20)
For an analysis of the documentary after “AKA Jane Roe” was released, we recommend listening to Equipped for Life podcast #45 by Josh Brahm of Equal Rights Institute at https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/equipped-for-life-podcast/id1485883460. Josh explains why this story is relevant to pro-choice people and shouldn’t be brushed away by pro-life advocates.