I had intended to write this month about Norma McCorvey, a.k.a. Jane Roe, of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court case that decided a woman has the right to choose to terminate a pregnancy. But I got sidetracked by my own ambivalence: I knew that I was pro-choice, but I realized that I had never thought my position through. Perhaps, instead of profiling the 57-year-old McCorvey, who famously switched sides in the abortion war nine years ago, I might just talk to her, in hopes of learning to better articulate my own views. But when I first spoke with her by telephone in September, she interrupted me to ask, “Are you a believer?” I told her that I was a pro-choice Christian. “How can you be a Christian and pro-choice?” she demanded.
Okay, fair question. For the next few weeks, I set out to explore my beliefs. I read everything I could find on the subject and had dozens of conversations with people of all persuasions. What I discovered came as no surprise: The uproar of the true believers drowns out the moderate majority. Robert Baird, the chair of the Department of Philosophy at Baylor University, told me that if there was a spectrum of positions—with the extreme right advocating no abortions under any circumstances and the extreme left calling for abortions anytime a woman chooses, and for any reason—99 percent of us would find ourselves somewhere in between. “This is a moral issue,” he said. “When you begin identifying moral justifications—abortion to save a woman’s life or for rape or incest or for a thirteen-year-old girl who is clueless—the more reasons you find, the more you move to the left. The real debate hasn’t yet been properly framed: What should count as a morally justifiable position?”
My search for an answer to Baird’s question led me back to McCorvey. We met in San Antonio at a rally of true believers, a fundraiser for the Texas Justice Foundation, whose main mission is to overturn Roe v. Wade. McCorvey is a small, feisty woman with close-cropped hair and a viper’s tongue, and she moved inconspicuously among the pageantry of praying and patriotism and firebrand oratory. She is not what you would call an articulate defender of the pro-life position; she is driven not by ideology but by gut instinct. I liked her. She played the street tough but didn’t try to hide her soft side. She flipped open the screen of her cell phone to show me a photograph of her granddaughter, born to the first of three children she bore and gave up for adoption or to relatives. When we parted, she gave me a small gift, an ornament that contained a single mustard seed. “Jesus said that with faith no bigger than this mustard seed, you can do great things,” she reminded me.
I couldn’t determine whether the people at this rally loved or merely tolerated her: Though she and her longtime partner, Connie Gonzales, have renounced lesbianism, they continue to live together, an arrangement that can’t be comfortable to true believers. At the same time, she is vital to their cause. In June 2003 she went back to federal district court in Dallas, where Roe v. Wade was originally filed, asking that the decision be reconsidered. Only the original plaintiff or defendant can do this. Judge David Godbey denied McCorvey’s motion, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit likewise rejected her request. Now she is hoping to have her case heard by the Supreme Court. Having once been accused by the pro-life movement of murdering 35 million babies, McCorvey is now its standard-bearer. I wondered if she recognized the bewildering complexity of a conflict in which both sides had made her their poster girl.
The following day, over a riverside lunch outside her hotel, I read her two quotes from interviews she had given over a wide span of her life: “When you were a celebrity in the pro-choice movement, you told a reporter, ‘This issue is the only thing I live for. I live, eat, breathe, and think … about abortion.’ Now that you’re a star of the religious right, you say, ‘I’m one hundred percent sold out to Jesus and one hundred percent pro-life … No exceptions. No compromise.’ It seems to me that these two extreme points of view spotlight the enormous divide that is tearing our country apart. Is there no common ground?”
“No,” she said bluntly. “Not when human life is concerned.”
“When do you think life begins?”
She told me a story. Back in the mid-nineties, when she was working for an abortion clinic in Dallas and doing daily battle with the clinic’s next-door neighbor, the militantly anti-abortion Operation Rescue, she was cavalier about fetuses: “I’d call next door and say, ‘We’re barbecuing some babies for lunch. Why don’t you come over?’” Then one day she saw a fetal development chart and—bingo!—it became clear to her: Life begins at conception. “Then I started remembering all the dead children I’d seen, little arms, little legs,” she said, biting her lip. “We had to count them to make sure the abortionist got them all out of the womb. Then we stuffed them in freezer jars, six or seven to a jar. We had no sense of reality about what we were doing.”
“What I don’t understand,” I told her, “is why people who love fetuses so dearly seem mostly indifferent to children after they’re born.” I mentioned in particular the 1.4 million children in Texas who have no health insurance, to the apparent unconcern of the religious right.
“That’s not the problem of the pro-life movement,” McCorvey said. “I’m a grown woman and I don’t have health insurance. We are fighting for the unborn.”
But what about the rights of the mother? “Do the unborn have more right to life than the born?” I asked.
“Yeah,” she shot back.
The nut of the issue—when does life begin?—is also the point where faith and science diverge, or get intentionally