When Norma McCorvey died on Feb. 18, a New York Times headline marked the occasion in a predictable manner: “Norma McCorvey, ‘Roe’ in Roe v. Wade, Is Dead at 69.”
Indeed, McCorvey gained national prominence when she stepped forward to identify herself as the anonymous plaintiff in Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 Supreme Court case that made abortion legal across the United States. I Am Roe, read the title of her first memoir.
Yet, from the very start, the tidy label ignored a deeper, more complex reality that defied the talking points of the abortion-rights movement. A spiritual struggle was brewing within Norma. It would lead her to repudiate Roe v. Wade, join the pro-life movement, convert to Christianity and spend the last 20 years of her life as a Catholic.
The spiritual pilgrimage of this humble, quirky woman is both mysterious and edifying. She began her life as the child of a broken home and never finished high school. She gave birth to three children who were raised by other women and later was involved in a long-term lesbian relationship. Yet, with her decisive break with the abortion-rights movement and her baptism, she revealed a hunger for truth, a great capacity for courage and a restless yearning for the love of the Father.
This was a woman who would find her strength in the things of God, not of men.
“Jesus is sent to ‘preach good news to the poor’; he declares them blessed, for ‘theirs is the kingdom of heaven,’” states the Catechism of the Catholic Church. “To them — the ‘little ones’ — the Father is pleased to reveal what remains hidden from the wise and the learned” (544).
Norma McCorvey became the plaintiff in the Roe v. Wade case after lying about her pregnancy, which she falsely described as a result of rape. The case dragged on as it moved through the courts, and Norma had her child, giving her up for adoption.
After she stepped forward to identify herself as “Roe,” she became a loyal foot solider in the battle to defend Roe and worked at several abortion businesses. Her job brought her into contact with Christian pro-life activists involved with Operation Rescue, and the rest is history.
After Norma publicly rejected the abortion-rights movement, she took responsibility for her past actions and began to repair the damage she had wrought as the plaintiff in Roe v. Wade and in her work at abortion facilities. “I never fit in that well with the pro-choice people,” she said after she joined the pro-life movement.
“I don’t have a degree from Vassar. I have worked in three clinics trying to please everyone and trying to be hard-core pro-choice. That is a very heavy burden.”
The burden was heavy indeed. For the rest of her life, Norma sought to atone for her role in Roe v. Wade and her work in the abortion industry.
“I know Norma felt very deeply the burden of these babies that died from abortion because of something she participated in,” Abby Johnson, a former abortion facility director-turned-pro-life activist, told the Register. “I often told Norma, ‘If it wasn’t you, it would have been someone else. They were looking for someone to manipulate and use.’”
Reflecting on their shared experience of profound guilt and shame, as well as their sense of gratitude for the hope and grace they received with the purifying waters of baptism, Johnson acknowledged that the weight of their legacy left painful wounds:
“Christ has forgiven us, but the burden you feel is self-inflicted. Most of us who have participated in this industry and in the systematic abuse of women through abortion have to deal with this.”
Johnson said she is inspired daily by her own work in the pro-life movement: helping abortion facility staff leave the industry.
But her inner strength comes from her faith.
“I don’t think I would be at the place I am at on this healing journey if it hadn’t been for the Catholic Church. The sacraments, Eucharistic adoration and the Church’s explicit teachings on mercy and forgiveness have helped immensely,” she said. “The Church helps people understand sin and how to be free of it.”
Johnson said she was looking forward to Lent because it helps her become more intentional about “finding Christ in everyday life” and reserving time for daily Mass, prayer and scriptural reflection.
“I listen and let God speak to me and renew my life and work.”
As we consider our own plans for Lent, and ponder Matthew’s account of the Transfiguration (17:1-9) in the Sunday readings, we reflect again on the testimony of the apostles.
They saw Christ “transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.”
The passage reminds us that every sinner who seeks Christ’s love and forgiveness will be configured in his glory. And amid the confusion and temptations that try to draw us into the culture of death, we are called to listen for the voice of God, who will not forsake us.
“Human existence is a journey of faith and, as such, goes forward more in darkness than in full light,” said Pope Benedict XVI in a 2006 meditation on the Transfiguration that held up the Virgin Mary, who continually pondered God’s word in her heart, as a model for every Catholic.
“This is, therefore, the gift and commitment for each one of us in the Lenten season: to listen to Christ, like Mary. To listen to him in the word, preserved in sacred Scripture. To listen to him in the very events of our lives, trying to read in them the messages of Providence. To listen to him, finally, in our brothers, especially in the little ones and the poor, for whom Jesus himself asked our concrete love. To listen to Christ and to obey his voice,” said Benedict.
“This is the only way that leads to joy and love.”