The woman best known as "Jane Roe," whose struggle to obtain an abortion led to the landmark Roe v. Wade decision, has renounced her role in the abortion rights movement and been baptized a born-again Christian by the leader of the antiabortion group Operation Rescue.
Until this week, Norma McCorvey worked as marketing director at A Choice for Women, a Dallas clinic that performs abortions. She sparred regularly with the Rev. Flip Benham, national director of Operation Rescue, who four months ago moved his group's offices next door to the clinic. She called him "Flipper." He called her "Miss Norma."
Their sparring led to long conversations about McCorvey's spiritual life. Tuesday night it was Benham who yelled "hallelujah" after dunking McCorvey in a baptismal pool.
"I think abortion is wrong," McCorvey told ABC News, which broke the story last night. "I think what I did was wrong. And I just had to take a pro-life position on choice."
In an interview later on "Nightline," however, McCorvey clarified her position and said she still believed "in a woman's right to choose a safe and legal abortion, but only in the first trimester. . . . For some women it would be appropriate, especially in the case of fetal deformity."
McCorvey acknowledged that her position is at odds with her new allies in Operation Rescue, but said she had begun to volunteer for the antiabortion group despite that. She said she had been assured by Operation Rescue leaders that they would not exploit her as a political symbol.
"I've already been exploited enough to last me a lifetime," McCorvey said. She told "Nightline" she resented that the abortion rights movement had used her as a plaintiff and later spurned her as a "loose cannon."
McCorvey and Operation Rescue's Benham had found common ground in pasts of hard living and hard drinking. Benham owned a bar near Disney World in Florida and drank away most of what he made, before finding God and becoming ordained in the Free Methodist Church.
McCorvey, 47, is a onetime carnival barker, drug dealer and house cleaner who had a drinking problem. In her 1994 book, "I Am Roe: My Life, Roe v. Wade, and Freedom of Choice," she wrote of being abused at home, raped as a teenager, married at 16 and abused as a wife.
Pregnant for the third time, McCorvey sought an abortion in 1970. She told attorney Sarah Weddington she had been raped. Weddington pressed McCorvey's case all the way to the Supreme Court, and won. But the 1973 verdict came too late for McCorvey, who carried the child to term and gave it up for adoption.
"Jane Roe" later admitted that she lied that she had been raped. But McCorvey told ABC News she has been haunted all these years by things like empty swings in a playground. "I thought, oh my God, the playgrounds are empty because there's no children because they've all been aborted."
Leaders of the abortion rights movement, including her former attorneys Sarah Weddington and Gloria Allred, played down the impact of McCorvey's apparent turnaround. They noted that her identity as "Jane Roe" was unknown for more than a decade after the Supreme Court decided her case.
"Luckily it doesn't matter what Norma McCorvey's doing today," Weddington said in a telephone interview with The Washington Post. "The fact that she was working in a clinic on Tuesday wasn't any particular help, and the fact that she's working for Operation Rescue on Wednesday doesn't hurt."
Said Allred, "I thank God and pro-choice activists that we live in a country where women like Norma can choose to be pro-abortion or antiabortion according to their own conscience."
Weddington said McCorvey's defection to a movement that has courted her is understandable for a person she described as a troubled woman who yearns for acceptance. "She's a person who has in recent years really craved and sought attention, and I think she thought she felt she wasn't given enough attention" by abortion rights advocates. In Flip Benham and Operation Rescue, "she has found someone to do that."
Allred said she didn't even realize that "Jane Roe" was a real person until she attended an abortion rights rally in Washington in the late '80s. Allred met a woman crying and asked if she needed help. The woman was McCorvey, and she was crying because the leaders of the rally had told McCorvey she couldn't address the crowd, Allred said.
"Even at the 20th anniversary of Roe v. Wade she was not invited to the White House, even though many pro-choice activists were, and I think that that was very hurtful to her," Allred said. "People were not supportive of her." McCorvey's conversion was immediately embraced by the antiabortion movement, already buoyed with a string of recent congressional victories limiting abortions. She was praised as a hero last night by National Right to Life, Operation Rescue and the National Conference of Catholic Bishops' Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities. Benham was unavailable for comment because he was holding a news conference in Dallas. McCorvey did not respond to messages left with her roommate.
McCorvey told ABC that her new friends in the antiabortion movement "accept me for who I am, not what I've done or what I can do for them. They genuinely love me."
Based on their interpretation of Scripture, this wing of the antiabortion movement clearly condemns homosexual behavior. Yet for 21 years McCorvey has been in a lesbian relationship with her roommate, Connie Gonzalez, and has not indicated she intends to renounce that part of her past. "All I know," Gonzalez said yesterday in a terse telephone interview, "is that Norma has become a Christian." CAPTION: Norma McCorvey's conversion is being hailed by the antiabortion movement.