When senior editor Gary Cartwright sat down to write about Norma McCorvey, also known as Jane Roe of Roe v. Wade, he ended up penning a column on his own beliefs about abortion. Here, Cartwright discusses how he came to rationalize his pro-choice stance, the possibility that Roe v. Wade may be overturned, and the need for moderates to become active in the debate.
texasmonthly.com: What motivated you to write your column on Roe v. Wade and your stance on abortion?
Gary Cartwright: I’ve always thought Roe v. Wade was a poor decision, not morally but legally. I supported a woman’s right to choose, but I didn’t think it made sense as a constitutional argument or that the judiciary was the proper branch of government to frame the issue. Abortion has always made me uneasy. Somewhere in the development of a fetus, we have to acknowledge life—or the potential of life. My ambivalence on the subject motivated me to start asking questions.
texasmonthly.com: In your column you say that you had intended to write about Norma McCorvey before you decided to explore the reasoning behind your own beliefs. What about McCorvey had you originally planned to write?
GC: McCorvey has been written about several times in the pages of Texas Monthly, but we hadn’t done an in-depth piece on her in quite some time. I thought she would be a good subject to update. What was she up to now? How had she fared since changing sides? But when McCorvey asked me during our first telephone conversation, “How can you be Christian and pro-choice?” the question stopped me in my tracks. I didn’t have a good answer. That’s when I determined that instead of writing about McCorvey I would write about my own ambivalence and attempt to reconcile it by reading and talking to others. The column became a journey of discovery.
texasmonthly.com: McCorvey seems to be a walking contradiction. She sparked the legalization of abortion in Roe v. Wade, but now she’s a fierce pro-lifer. She and her partner live together, but they renounce lesbianism. After seeing her in action at the rally for the Justice Foundation, how do her fellow pro-life advocates react to her support for their cause?
GC: McCorvey is a stereotypical icon to the pro-life group, a sinner who has repented. She is the perfect poster girl for people determined to overturn Roe v. Wade. As the plaintiff in the original case—the only one who can ask the court to change its opinion—she is indispensable to the cause. At the same time, I sensed that some of them were uneasy around her. McCorvey has a lot of street smarts but isn’t comfortable with the ideology that most pro-lifers take for granted. But I believe she enjoys being a celebrity among pro-lifers, if for no other reason than the pro-choice people had looked down their noses at her.
texasmonthly.com: Did you talk to any veteran pro-choice activists who spoke out against McCorvey’s decision to change sides and become a pro-life advocate?
GC: Yes, including Sarah Weddington, the attorney who argued Roe v. Wade before the Supreme Court. Weddington told me, “I don’t believe anything McCorvey says any more.” She pointed out the many contradictions that McCorvey has fostered over the years. Weddington showed me a number of old newspaper and magazine stories in which McCorvey claimed that the child she was carrying at the time of Roe was the result of a vicious gang rape, which she described in great detail. McCorvey later admitted that the story was a lie. McCorvey has reinvented herself several times.
texasmonthly.com: What do you make of McCorvey’s belief that the unborn have more right to life than the born?
GC: That belief follows the Religious Right’s party line. It is the only way these fundamentalists can explain their seeming lack of concern for such things as children’s health insurance and social services for the poor.
texasmonthly.com: You discuss moral justifications for abortion. Do you think it’s permissible to make exceptions in order to sanction an abortion? What do you count as moral justifications?
GC: I think each of us is responsible for our own moral view of abortion, and that nobody (including the government) has the right to decide for someone else. I believe that most Americans think abortion is morally justified in cases of rape or incest, when a mother’s life is in danger, and in cases where clueless teenagers find themselves pregnant. Personally, I think abortions are also morally justified in cases where middle-age women get pregnant by accident and aren’t emotionally prepared for motherhood. At the same time, I hate to see abortion used as a standby for birth control. But again, this is not a decision for lawmakers.
texasmonthly.com: How will the abortion debate change if McCorvey is successful in getting the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade? Do you think the decision will ever be overturned?
GC: Though major Supreme Court decisions are not overturned often, Roe v. Wade very well may be reversed during Bush’s second term. If that happens, the right to abortion is likely to become, at least in the short term, a state-by-state determination. History shows that this is not a workable solution. Eventually, there will be a federal law setting down the right to abortion, similar to the way it evolved after Roe v. Wade. I don’t think our country will settle for anything less.
texasmonthly.com: You make a call to moderates to reframe the abortion debate by acknowledging the legitimate claims of both sides and finding common ground. Do you think the two sides will ever really be able to meet in the middle?
GC: As long as the extremists are allowed to frame the debate, I don’t think there can be a middle ground. Most of us are not extremists, and it’s up to us to take charge of this issue and find a compromise.
texasmonthly.com: Now that you have been able to formulate your argument behind your pro-choice position on abortion, have you started to rethink your views on other controversial issues?
GC: Over the years, I have constantly reevaluated my beliefs on moral issues. I used to be against the death penalty, and still am, in my heart of hearts, but I’ve seen the suffering of families of murder victims and noted the way that putting killers to death has relieved their suffering. I’ve also observed in researching stories on killers such as Kenneth McDuff that a few of them need to be removed from the gene pool for the good of society. The death penalty should be applied on a selective basis, by a jury only. Most people on death row are not continuing risks to society. We need to change the law in Texas so that juries can assess life without the possibility of parole as an alternative to the death penalty. It’s actually more cost-effective to keep prisoners behind bars for life than to pay for the process of nearly endless appeals for those on death row.