The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Jane Roe’ made abortion legal. Then a minister made her rethink.

Norma McCorvey, better known as Jane Roe from the Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade, passed away on Feb. 18. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

When Flip Benham opened an office of his antiabortion group next door to an abortion clinic that employed Norma McCorvey, the two saw each other through the cliches of their respective ideologies.

McCorvey, also known as “Jane Roe” of Roe v. Wade, saw Benham’s group as “vicious, mean-spirited, fire-breathing, sanctimonious, self-righteous, bigoted hypocrites,” she would later write.

Benham, a minister, told the New York Times that he was setting up shop “at the gates of hell.”

Norma McCorvey, Jane Roe of Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion nationwide, dies at 69

Those “hypocrites” had already driven an abortion doctor out of Dallas and shut down another clinic in the city. And what Benham called the “gates of hell” was the employer of the woman better known by the pseudonym she used in the Supreme Court case that made abortion legal.

Almost no one expected McCorvey and Benham to stay neighbors long.

Absolutely no one expected that before 1995 was over, they would call each other friends.

Nor that their meeting would lead McCorvey to spend the rest of her life — which ended Saturday — as an opponent of the movement she once symbolized.

A high school dropout whose Supreme Court victory came too late for her to have the abortion she wanted, McCorvey was working as a marketing director at A Choice for Women in north Dallas that spring.

After years of semi-anonymity, she had just released a book called “I Am Roe,” and was somewhat awkwardly assuming the role of a public figure.

Like most in Dallas’s antiabortion circles, she knew Benham and his group, Operation Rescue, by infamy. Operation Rescue had protested a nearby clinic every day for six years — until the clinic shut down.

The group relocated its headquarters to the suite beside A Choice for Women, in March 1995. “The Lord has given us this place right next door where they’re killing little boys and girls,” Benham told the Dallas Morning News on move-in day.

McCorvey phoned police twice before noon.

From Day One, the groups’ shared parking lot became a mob of protesters and reporters. McCorvey and Benham stood in the thick of it, giving competing interviews and sizing each other up.

“Are you still killing babies, Miss Norma?” the minister asked her in the parking lot, McCorvey wrote in her second book, “Won By Love.”

“Lighten up,” she replied. “What you need is to go to a good Beach Boys concert.”

“Miss Norma, I haven’t been to a Beach Boys concert since 1976,” Benham said.

Their previous interactions had been few, brief and hostile, McCorvey wrote. Benham had called her a baby killer at her book signing. She once left him drunken taunts on his answering machine.

But with that brief conversation — about the Beach Boys, no less — “Flip became more human to me,” she wrote.

Accounts of their early friendship diverge somewhat. Benham would later tell Vanity Fair that McCorvey immediately began dropping by his office to “ask us to pray for her.”

McCorvey described a more reluctant courtship, but agreed that the minister’s humility disarmed her.

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She recalled the weekend after Benham moved in. Saturdays were always big protest days, she wrote, and McCorvey was dreading the first one with Operation Rescue next door.

As McCorvey stood outside smoking, she wrote, Benham sat down beside her. He apologized for calling her names: “I saw my words drop into your heart, and I know they hurt you deeply.”

McCorvey was taken aback. She excused herself, went inside and cried, she wrote.

The office block settled into a bizarre pattern: regular police calls and noisy protests in the parking lot, coupled with nascent friendships between employees in opposite offices.

“The war in front of our clinic became a war of love and hatred,” McCorvey wrote in her book.

About a month after Operation Rescue moved in, county constables raided it. The antiabortion group owed more than $1 million to Planned Parenthood after losing a lawsuit for disrupting clinics in another city.

The authorities took everything in lieu of payment. Workers “were forced to stand in the chairless office … and change babies’ diapers on the floor,” the Morning News reported.

McCorvey recalled walking next door to find her rivals in “barely contained panic.”

“I am so, so sorry,” she said.

McCorvey lent her neighbors a fax machine.

So it went. In private, after hours, Benham would share Bible passages with McCorvey, she wrote.

She, in turn, would explain the complicated mix of religions and mystical philosophies she believed in.

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Her anger at Benham would return whenever she watched him give a bombastic interview. When she first took Benham up on a challenge to go to church, she was put off by a sermon against homosexuals — McCorvey had long identified as a lesbian.

Still, she wrote, “I envied them for what they had.”

One day, she wrote, after the doctor and other employees had left the clinic, she climbed onto the operation table.

A symbol to the abortion movement for 20 years, she had never had the procedure herself. The Supreme Court ruling came too late for her. The two children she bore out of wedlock were given up for adoption.

“I put my feet into the stirrups and lay there for some time,” McCorvey wrote in her book.

She reflected.

On a particularly bad Saturday morning, more than 50 protesters crowded the clinic parking lot.

The protests were more than annoyances. It had been just a few months since the last American abortion worker was murdered, and Jane Roe herself was as good a target as any.

“I was terrified,” McCorvey wrote. “And then, almost like an angel, Flip walked out.”

With a few quiet words to the protest leader, the minister cleared the entire parking lot.

When everyone was gone, he walked over and told her a story.

“You know, Miss Norma, I used to be pro-choice,” Benham said, she wrote. “When my wife found out she was pregnant with our twins, I told her to have an abortion.”

The confession astounded McCorvey: “If Flip was supposed to be my archenemy, why was he giving me information that could prove damaging to his reputation?”

In fact, the minister had told the same story to the Morning News a year earlier, for a profile in the newspaper. But McCorvey wrote that she went home and consulted Tarot cards for the meaning of it all.

Before long, she began to imagine infants’ laughter as she worked in the clinic.

“Something inside me had changed,” she wrote.

In August of 1995, McCorvey was invited to church by an Operation Rescue worker — a woman whose young children she had sometimes watched. She did not know many in the congregation, she wrote, but many seemed to know her before the pastor spoke.

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“I can’t really recall much of what he shared,” McCorvey wrote, “but each word began to open the window in my heart just a little farther.”

After the service, she accompanied the congregants to a house outside Dallas, to a backyard swimming pool, where she was baptized.

The event had been publicized in advance, but still took the country by surprise.

“Well, as I understand it, she’s gone through a number of changes in her life and had a serious religious conversion and believes that abortion is wrong now,” President Bill Clinton said the next day.

McCorvey and Benham explained the conversion in their own chosen words.

“Jesus Christ has reached through the abortion-mill wall and touched the heart of Norma McCorvey,” Benham told the Morning News.

“I think I have always been pro-life,” McCorvey told a local radio station. “I just didn’t know it.”

In years to come, she would become as much a symbol to the antiabortion movement as she had been to abortion rights supporters.

Which is to say, a sometimes awkward one.

“Do not vote for Barack Obama,” McCorvey said against a backdrop of images of aborted fetuses, according to Vanity Fair. “He murders babies.”

Some were suspicious that her religious conversion was planned for publicity. After she abandoned them, abortion advocates painted McCorvey as an attention-starved figurehead.

Even Benham — years later — told Vanity Fair “she just fishes for money.”

But on the day after her baptism, with a new religion and a new friend, “Jane Roe” didn’t seem interested in publicity.

“There will be no more public appearances from me,” her answering machine said when the Morning News phoned. “I am going to be regular person Norma McCorvey.”

More reading:

Ohio’s new abortion law is an assault on Roe. Here’s why it won’t work.