by Merle Hoffman
M E R L E H O F F M A N | O N T H E I S S U E S
It is a fact that some people find Jesus in the strangest of places — he seems to relish coming in chance epiphanies, catching them unexpected and amazed. So when news broke in August that Norma McCorvey, a.k.a. Jane Roe of Roe v. Wade, the “poster girl for choice,” had got herself baptized in a Florida swimming pool by a leader of Operation Rescue I was not surprised. Rev. Flip Benham, who did the honors, reported that Jesus Christ “had reached through the abortion mill wall and touched the heart of Norma McCorvey.” According to Benham, Norma found Jesus “at the gates of Hell.”
During my 25 years at Choices, I have heard many first-hand reports about Jesus at those particular gates. It is not unusual for women to recount their private dialogues with him as they lie prepped for their abortions or wake drowsy and vulnerable from anaesthesia. “I just know he understands,” they will say. “I believe he will forgive me.”
“He wants me to be able to care for the two children I have.”
“God is love, isn’t he?”
McCorvey isn’t the first pro-choice figure to go public with a change of mind and heart. Years ago, Dr. Bernard Nathanson, owner and operator of Crash (Center for Reproductive and Sexual Health), one of the nation’s first and largest abortion clinics, left his practice saying he felt he had “overseen the murder of thousands of babies.” He went on to produce the anti-choice film classic The Silent Scream and forge a career as a well-paid favorite on the anti-choice lecture circuit.
Organizations such as WEBA (Women Exploited By Abortion) and AVA (American Victims of Abortion) are composed entirely of women who have had abortions but have “seen the light” and become anti-choice activists. Their collective analysis of the abortion experience is that “if they had only known what abortion really was,” that “it stopped a beating heart,” that if only the providers had told the truth, they would never have killed their babies. Theirs was a sin born in ignorance; they take no responsibility but suffer the secondary guilt of the blind and misled. Their political activism in the anti-choice movement is an attempt to expiate that guilt.
McCorvey’s sin and resulting guilt, however, rest not on an act of commission, but on symbolism. She herself never had an abortion. It was her inability to get one that was the basis for the lawsuit. “I’ve cheated people out of money,” she told Ted Koppel in a Nightline interview on August 15. “I’ve sold drugs. I’ve done a lot against his teaching. But I think the greatest sin that I did was to be the plaintiff in Roe v. Wade.”
In the 1994 autobiography that uncovered her Jane Roe identity, McCorvey also revealed that her Roe pregnancy was not the result of rape, as she had told her lawyer Sarah Weddington and the world had come to believe. “I am a rough woman,” McCorvey wrote, “born into pain and anger and raised mostly by myself.” And her road to Roe was difficult and hard-lived. She was the child of an alcoholic mother who had tried to abort her, she wrote, the grandchild of a prostitute/fortune-teller, and a runaway at 10 who had gone to reform school, abused alcohol and drugs, worked as a bartender and carnival barker, suffered from severe depression, and had lovers of both sexes.
Her partner of 26 years, Connie Gonzales, says that McCorvey’s gullible nature allowed her to be swayed by the charismatic leader of Operation Rescue, and that she is likely to renege on her pledge to work for the anti-abortion group. Ellen Goodman, writing in the Boston Globe on August 17 calls her the poster child of ambivalence and says that we are witnessing not the conversion, but the seduction of Norma McCorvey — as if the two were mutually exclusive.
I think back to the times that Bishop Daily, bishop of Brooklyn and Queens (where Choices is located), would lead hundreds of his parishioners to our front doors in “prayer vigils.” There they would stand — rosaries in hand, bouquets of flowers held up to the sky in gentle supplication — singing “Amazing Grace” and praying for my soul and the souls of the “murdered unborn” inside my clinic. I would find myself at times mentally singing along with them, feeling the sweet ache of guilt and assumed forgiveness, the giving up of oneself, the primal and profound desire for that unconditional love.
“We must be wise and gentle with our new member,” writes Susan Carpenter McMillan, spokesperson for the pro-life Women’s Coalition in Los Angeles, about McCorvey. “The pro-life movement must become a sanctuary to salve her wounds, mend her abused spirit, and do nothing but love and accept her, for through the years she has been greatly used and scarred.”
Seductive, yes — like the seduction of your mother’s lap when you’re afraid of the dark.
On Nightline, Rev. Benham said, “I love Norma McCorvey,” and McCorvey echoed, “They are my friends; they genuinely love me.” McCorvey had looked for that unconditional acceptance — the love that asks for nothing but your sinning naked soul — in the women’s movement. She had looked for respect and friendship, community and recognition.
But like many of the women she came to represent, she felt she didn’t get any. The abortion rights leaders were Vassar-educated women who shunned her and thought she was “stupid,” she told Nightline. “I’m a simple working-class woman without an education,” she told the Daily Mail. “Then suddenly I was Jane Roe, the mother of abortions.”
The mother of abortions — McCorvey experienced herself as both midwife to and symbolic mother of the pro-choice movement. She was simultaneously guilt-ridden and filled with illusions of grandeur and self-importance. “Being Jane Roe has been a heavy burden,” she said. “I remember ten years ago driving past a school playground and seeing these empty swings. I freaked out. I thought, ŒAll the children are dead and it’s because of me.'”
She felt supremely responsible and utterly alone. “The pro-choicers only used to phone me up when they wanted me to appear at a meeting for them as Jane Roe,” she told the Mail. They didn’t give a damn about me or my salvation.”
I first met Norma McCorvey at the second national Pro-Choice March on Washington in 1989. She greeted me with a wan smile as activist lawyer Gloria Allred introduced her first as Norma McCorvey and then as “you know, Jane Roe.” That march, like the one before it in 1986, stands out in my memory mainly for its posthumous nature — happening well after the 1977 Hyde Amendment cut off Medicaid funds for abortions for poor women (except for rape, incest, and to save the woman’s life). Within months, we had our first Hyde Amendment death, Rosie Jimenez, a young woman killed by a botched illegal abortion in Mexico because her Medicaid coverage was cut off in Texas.
Unwanted pregnancy knows no class or race distinctions. The pro-choice movement does. It took almost a decade and the threat of everyone losing abortion rights for the movement to march.
As Jane Roe, the symbol of the movement, Norma McCorvey was a lone powerful existential figure. Jane Roe, as embodied in the flesh of Norma McCorvey, was supposed to be the nonpolitical soldier who could be trotted out then put back in her box when the show was over.
Since her conversion, Norma McCorvey has been criticized for her lifestyle, her lack of education, her emotionality, her sexuality, her confusion, and her desperate attention-seeking. Because she became a “partial convert” to the anti-choice position (she opposed abortion after the second trimester only), she has been called a loose cannon — even a “useful idiot,” a term coined by Lenin to describe well-meaning people willing to be exploited for a cause without understanding the profound political responsibilities involved. As a result, much of McCorvey’s criticism of the elitism of the pro-choice movement has been minimized or ignored as the ramblings of a neurotic. “All Jane Roe did was sign a one-page legal document,” said Roe v. Wade attorney Weddington when told of the recantation.
As an individual, McCorvey reflects the ambivalence, the struggles, and the daily untidiness of existence. After revealing that she lied about being raped, McCorvey is no longer “clean.” She has all the debris and baggage of a difficult and hard-lived life. Her class separates her from the leadership of the movement just as her outlaw nature does, and her experience of rejection reflects the larger political and philosophical conflicts that plague that leadership.
When Norma McCorvey is now asked to describe her political position, she says she is “pro-Norma.” In the end she is still alone, and that is the greatest failing of the pro-choice movement’s behavior towards her. It’s not that it did not offer her salvation or absolution. It did not even offer her sisterhood.
When Kate Michelman, executive director of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, is quoted saying that “abortion is a bad thing,” when almost-Surgeon General Dr. Henry Foster calls it “abhorrent” and a “failure,” and when so-called feminist “icon” Hillary Rodham Clinton describes it as “morally wrong,” they sidestep abortion’s messy reality, which is grounded in women’s lives, and act as a silencing force that disenables women from telling the truth.
Abortion is a mother’s act. It is an act of sacrifice, love, power, and necessity. Many of the 30 million women who have actually had abortions since legalization share much of the baggage McCorvey carried. Some are ambivalent and embarrassed. Others search for comfort and validation. The leadership’s failure to embrace their reality and the movement’s other core constituency, the providers who actually make abortion possible, leave both vulnerable to attack and harassment.
The pro-choice movement doesn’t talk about love — it talks about power and the right and need for women to control their bodies and their reproductive destinies. It offers no salvation and promises no absolution, just the profound loneliness of deciding whether to bring another life into the world.
While Norma McCorvey’s conversion may indeed have highlighted some political and strategic shortcomings of the pro-choice movement, it also has been used as a catalyst for something far more dangerous: mounting political attacks from the right and the left on the very idea of freedom of choice as a positive value. Twenty-two years after Roe, it appears that the images of the back alleys have faded.
In what he defines as a “principled yet pragmatic stand,” anti-choice author George McKenna, writing in the September issue of The Atlantic Monthly, argues that the best way to ultimately eliminate abortion is to adopt a “politics of civility” that is both anti-abortion and pro-choice at the same time. Addressing anti-choice politicians, he advises taking a position similar to the one Lincoln adopted on slavery well into the Civil War — tolerate, restrict, discourage.
In McKenna’s analysis, the pro-choice movement is comparable to the pro-slavery forces who supported an immoral institution by claiming freedom of choice while not facing the reality of what they were choosing. Calling abortion “the corpse at the dinner table,” he believes it has come to occupy a surrealistic place in the national dialogue. Using Kate Michaelman’s comments to support his analysis that abortion in the 1990s — like slavery in the 1850s — is the sin that cannot speak its name, he argues that for the time being, pro-lifers should accept the legality but not the moral legitimacy of abortion.
Just as slavery was ultimately abolished, legal abortion (which McKenna defines as evil) will also pass into history. Not now, not immediately, but through a slow weaning process of regulation, restrictions, and social pressure.
Not surprisingly, women do not figure much in McKenna’s world view, except as confused and misinformed patients of abortion providers. The stark reality of enforced pregnancy as a category of slavery is never explored. For McKenna, fetuses=slaves and women=nothing.
This shopworn strategy of moral suasion is hardly surprising coming from someone who seeks the destruction of women’s freedom of choice. What is chilling is to read remarkably similar advice from feminist Naomi Wolf in the October 16 issue of The New Republic. In a cynical, self-centered address to the leadership of the pro-choice movement, Wolf argues that positioning abortion rights merely as the political vision of women having power — actively, morally choosing to determine their reproductive destinies sans God or sin — is just too “hardhearted” to sell. By using the language of Communitarianism, positioning abortion rights within a paradigm of traditional Judeo-Christian rights and responsibilities, we can create a better P.R. spin, she says. Recognizing that the “death of the fetus is a real death” would expand the pro-choice position into the all-encompassing middle where most Americans would feel comfortable — the Clintonian position of abortion being “legal but rare,” necessary but sinful.
What McCorvey needed to do, what most Americans deserve to do is “mourn the necessary evil that is abortion,” she writes. In Wolf’s feminist theology, the pro-choice movement has committed three mortal sins: “hardness of heart, lying, and political failure.” In an exquisite example of collective victim-blaming, Wolf blames the pro-choice movement for the “ascendency of the religious right,” and the subsequent loss of the political middle and the democratic left. The movement can find true redemption only by facing the reality that abortion really “stops a beating heart,” she says. Well it does stop a beating heart, but it also keeps another one going: the heart and the life of each woman who chooses it. It does that too.
Wolf both demeans women and betrays her own psychological naivete when she places women’s choices on a grafted moral continuum where some abortions are more moral than others. In an analysis that mirrors the anti-choice argument against “convenience abortions,” she writes of the “suburban summer country club rite of passage” abortions; the “I don’t know what came over me, it was such a good Chardonnay” abortions. She compares women to draft evaders — some making the decision to abort merely as an act of self-preservation. (Merely!) In her own version of former President Carter’s “lust in the heart” she hints at her own sexual indiscretion and the subsequent pseudo-sin of having to take the morning-after pill. Thus, with the authority of a sinner she calls for guilt and expiation.
After being witness to more than 200,000 abortions, hearing the stories that bring women to that place, I know what most women know and experience. I know that they know that abortion is the termination of potential life. I know that they feel a deep sense of the loss of possibility (“If only I wasn’tŠsingle, 13, poor, not ready,” and on and on). I also cannot forget that in the majority of cases, they also feel a deep sense of relief and freedom.
And however they define “sin,” either in the traditional religious matrix of heaven and hell or in the Wolfian definition of one who has “fallen short of who she should be,” there’s no need to lecture them about the quantity or the quality of their guilt. There is plenty enough to go around.
They have been well-indoctrinated.
They feel guilty about not wanting to be mothers at that particular time, they feel guilty about getting pregnant even when their birth control was what failed them, they feel guilty about not insisting that their men put on condoms — or that they did not put in their diaphragms. And sometimes they feel guilty about not feeling guilty.
Using the language of sin and redemption does not inject morality into the abortion decision. It is the language of those who stand outside my clinic every Saturday and scream at women that God will punish them because they are killing their babies, who say that the Bible teaches them that killing doctors who perform abortions is “justifiable homicide.”
Wolf argues that by using traditional God language and grafting it onto a family-values paradigm, the pro-choice movement will be able to expand its political base. In fact, it will probably act more as McKenna predicts — as the first stage in a phased strategy to ultimately eliminate legal abortion.
This language will operate as a Trojan Horse that will bring the enemy’s arguments into the heart of pro-choice territory where multiple battles have to be fought. We are facing expansions of the Hyde amendment, increased clinic violence, blocking of RU-486, limits on federal employee health insurance, denying abortions to women in the military — even reinstating the Gag Rule, and further criminalizing abortion.
Rather than facing this reality, Wolf, who fancies we are already living in a “patriarchy crumbling in spite of itself,” concludes with a fantasy of a world without the dusty idea of gender. A democracy where “passionate feminists might hold candlelight vigils at abortion clinics, standing shoulder to shoulder with the doctors who work there, commemorating and saying goodbye to the dead” (the unborn, the never to be born).
In the real world I live in, passionate feminists are desperately needed to stand shoulder to shoulder with doctors and clinic workers to help protect them against the Michael Griffins, Paul Hills, and John Salvis who shoot them down in cold blood.
Rather than the rhetoric and rituals of memorial and lighting candles for the dead, the sisterhood should be lighting the fires of resistance in the living.