Roe v. Wade plaintiff Norma McCorvey’s death this past Saturday, February 18, closed a life that not only jumpstarted the abortion debate, but encompassed the political trajectory of the granddaddy of all wedge issues, as she went from feisty heroine to self-declared victim of the abortion rights movement.
Like many women who seek an abortion, McCorvey wasn’t looking to make a big statement about the legality or morality of the procedure when she sought one in 1970. She was 22 and pregnant and didn’t want to be, the product of an upbringing the New York Times rightly labeled Dickensian:
…the unwanted child of a broken home, a ninth-grade dropout who was raped repeatedly by a relative, and a homeless runaway and thief consigned to reform school. She was married at 16, divorced and left pregnant three times by different men.
After more than a decade of obscurity in which the alias used in a challenge to the Texas law that banned most abortions became synonymous with women’s empowerment, McCorvey became an avatar of the abortion rights movement as it ascended to cultural and political power in the late 1980s. The movement had struggled to find cohesion in the 1970s, but exploded in the wake of Ronald Reagan’s election and the reality that Roe might be overturned by efforts to pass a Human Life Amendment.
McCorvey appeared at a major abortion-rights march in Washington in 1989 ahead of the oral arguments in Webster v. Reproductive Health Services, the biggest challenge to Roe up to that point, sharing the stage with Jane Fonda, Gloria Steinem and Glenn Close. It was the heyday of the abortion rights movement as a cohesive, top-down effort led and funded by middle-class white women and she was their totem, a poor woman given a second chance by legal abortion.
But as Joshua Prager reported in Vanity Fair in 2013, there was always a hint of the huckster about McCorvey, from a scheme to hawk signed reprints of the Roe decision, to the creation of a Jane Roe Foundation that was supposed to help poor women get abortions but appeared to be a way for McCorvey to siphon funds to herself, to what her partner later said were falsified statements that their house had been shot at.
By the 1990s, the anti-choice movement was again in the vanguard, propelled by the Webster decision that allowed states to put new limits on access to abortion. The Clinton administration had created a fierce blowback among social conservatives and Newt Gingrich and a newly empowered GOP had taken control of Congress in the 1994 mid-term elections; “pro-family” politics were on the rise.
In 1995, when she was working at a Dallas abortion clinic, McCorvey met and was converted to Christianity by Operation Rescue’s Phillip “Flip” Benham, an evangelical minister, who baptized her in a swimming pool. McCorvey quickly became the poster girl for abortion regret and a national pro-life spokesperson. As Prager reported, in addition to giving McCorvey a kind of moral certitude that she craved, there appeared to be opportunistic motives at work in her about-face:
As Gloria Allred [who represented McCorvey] points out, “It’s a career choice as well.” After resigning her position at A Choice for Women and shuttering her second foundation, McCorvey helped to create a new Texas nonprofit, Roe No More Ministry, devoted to undoing all she had previously stood for.
She became a paid spokesperson not just for the movement, but for a newer kind of hard-line opposition to abortion that portrayed abortion providers as a vast, conspiratorial, money-making industry that preyed on women, who if left unmanipulated would never choose abortion. When asked in 1997 about attacks on abortion clinics, she told CNN: “I personally think it’s the pro-abortion people who are doing this to collect on their insurance, so they can go out and build bigger and better killing centers.”
In 1998, McCorvey was was converted a second time, this time to Catholicism by Rev. Frank Pavone, the founder of Priests for Life, who is no stranger to political stunts. Her dual conversions straddled the national convergence of the evangelical and Catholic anti-abortion movements into a powerful new alliance. In 1994, prominent Catholics and evangelicals signed the “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” declaration, putting aside their theological differences to created a unified political front against abortion.
The newly energized anti-abortion movement went on the offensive, pushing measures designed to chip away at abortion access that would prove far more successful than the frontal assaults on Roe that failed during the Reagan administration. There were new limits on abortion funding under Medicaid and the federal employees health plan and an attack on phony “partial-birth” abortions designed to use visceral images to repel lightly committed supporters of abortion. Meanwhile, the pro-choice movement wrestled with questions about strategy and leadership and struggled to incorporate the voices of black and Latina women.
Bolstered by hardliners like Pavone and an increasingly right-wing U.S. bishops’ conference, the Republican Party began siphoning off more and more Catholics, adding them to their evangelical voting bloc. As hard right-wingers ascended to party leadership, they insisted on more and more ideological purity on abortion, as did the Democrats, cleaving the parties into two neat factions, for and against.
Today, no other social issue is nearly as divisive. A Pew Poll taken just before the election found that 82% of likely Clinton voters supported abortion rights, while only 36% of Trump voters did so. Fully 60% of Trump supporters thought abortion should be illegal in all most cases, while only 16% of Clinton backers would ban abortion.
And the anti-abortion movement, which—as their exploitation of McCorvey demonstrates—has always had a better sense of the theatrics of the politics of abortion, married that to a fierce grassroots legislative ground game to make stunning inroads on abortion access in the United States, even as the procedure remains technically legal.
So perhaps it’s symbolically appropriate that McCorvey went to her maker right after the 2016 presidential election proved the staying power of the issue that she helped elevate to the national stage. Say what you want about belligerent blue-collar workers or Islamophobia or hostility to undocumented immigrants or even Obamacare. Donald Trump would not have been elected president if it were not for abortion. His embrace of a strong anti-abortion position and promise of appointing anti-abortion judges to the Supreme Court ensured him the support of evangelicals and conservative Catholics who would have otherwise found him morally repugnant. Abortion remains the alpha and omega of wedge issues in American politics, and Norma McCorvey, in her own reluctant, vacillating way, helped put it there.