If you haven’t yet heard, Norma McCorvey, the “Roe” in Roe v. Wade, died today. She came to fame as a rape victim who, claimed abortion proponents, should have been allowed an abortion. After the Supreme Court decision, McCorvey became an abortion rights activist.
McCorvey also made her life story public and a terrible life it was, one of poverty, abuse (including being raped as a child), broken marriages, sexual confusion, drugs, and alcohol. Faith finally saved her and, with that faith, she came to realize that human life has value.
Norma McCorvey spent the last two decades of her life campaigning for the pro-Life movement. That is, with age, wisdom, peace, and chemical detox, she abandoned the belief system she’d developed during a twisted, impoverished, chemically-altered, depressed, deeply abused youth.
The above is a very short precis of a complicated and consequential life. I may be wrong, but I think the trajectory that took her to the place at which she ended is just as important as the point from which she started. The New York Times does not agree with me.
If you’re wondering why I turned to the Times obituary for Norma McCorvey, I did it both because the Times often does obituaries very well and because I was curious about how the Times would cover McCorvey’s inconvenient ideological conversion. Perhaps if Margalit Fox had written the obituary, it might have been different, because she’s a genuine talent. The assignment, however, ended in a lesser writer’s hands.
The obituary is 41 paragraphs long, so you can assume that most readers will give up about 10 to 20 paragraphs in. Keep that in mind as you read the following, which briefly summarizes each paragraph’s contents. Also, to give you a visual sense about the Times’ heroic effort to downplay the fact that Norma McCorvey eventually found emotional peace in the pro-Life movement, I’ll highlight in red all of the references to the last twenty years of her life’s work. I’ve also included my own commentaries in square brackets.
Para. 1 — Identifies who Norma McCorvey was — a central figure in the divisive abortion debate — and announces her death at 69.
Para. 2 — Cause and location of death.
Para. 3 — 50 million legal abortions performed since 1973, although “although later court decisions and new state and federal laws have imposed restrictions.” [Bookworm here: This sentence implies that the pro-Life movement has significantly moved the dial at a judicial and legislative level. The reality is that Roe v. Wade itself imposed significant restrictions on abortion relating to the development of the fetus: in the first trimester, the woman controls completely; in the second, there’s a balancing act; and in the third, the state has the greatest interest. Later decisions did away with that. No statute has successfully returned abortion to the original Roe v. Wade limitations.] In the same paragraph, the author states “abortions have declined with the wide use of contraceptives.
Para. 4 — McCovey an almost mythological figure who never wanted the spotlight. “[p]ulled by the forces of politics to one side of the abortion conflict, then by religion to the other.” [Bookworm here: This is the first mention of the last 20 years of her life and it is so opaque only the knowing reader would understand that McCorvey spent the last 20 years of her life as a principled pro-Life activist.]
Para. 5 — Horrible, horrible childhood.
Para. 6 — Horrible, horrible young adulthood.
Para. 7 — Was 22 and pregnant when she “joined the abortion rights struggle, claiming later that she had not really understood what it was all about.” Once her identity was known pro-Life people called her a “baby killer,” spat on her, sent her death threats, and shot out her house’s windows. [Bookworm here: Pro-Lifers are killers.]
Para. 8 — She was active in support of abortion rights.
Para. 9 — “She also switched sides, from abortion rights advocate to anti-abortion campaigner. She underwent two religious conversions, as a born-again Christian and as a Roman Catholic, and became in her last decades a staunch foe of abortion, vowing to undo Roe v. Wade, testifying in Congress and bitterly attacking Barack Obama when he ran for president and then re-election.” [Bookworm here: Although it again shies away from that hideous phrase “pro-Life,” this is a fairly honest paragraph that acknowledges McCorvey’s staggering change in outlook. An intelligent writer might want to expand on the psychology at work. But not at the Times. You won’t see a lot more red in this post and what red you see will highlight language as vague as the language in this paragraph. The Times is like a snail near salt when it comes to saying “pro-Life” or discussing what that means.]
Para. 10 — Never a real crusader. Actually just a pawn for both sides of debate. [Bookworm here: Yes, another oblique way to avoid the phrase “pro-Life.”]
Para. 11 — Roe herself believes she was just an accidental player in a larger game.
Para. 12 — Two Dallas lawyers snagged on to her in 1970 to challenge a Texas law prohibiting abortions unless the mother’s life was in danger. McCorvey signed an affidavit [saying what?] that she later claimed she had not read. She just wanted an abortion, not to change the world.
Para. 13 — Gave birth and gave the baby up for adoption. Lawsuit proceeded without her all the way up to the Supreme Court.
Para. 14 — Blackmun wrote and the Supreme Court issued Roe v. Wade, identifying a hitherto unknown right to unfettered abortion during the first trimester under the 14th Amendment’s due process and equal rights clauses.
Para. 15 — The majority said that the fetus was not a person upon conception and therefore had no rights.
Para. 16 — Quotes Blackmun to the effect that the fetus is not a constitutional person.
Para. 17 — Quotes Blackmun to the effect that there are a lot of non-life threatening reasons women don’t want to be pregnant, with Blackmun saying these reasons include “convenience, family planning, economics, dislike of children, the embarrassment of illegitimacy, etc.”
Para. 18 — Quotes Blackmun to the effect that the plaintiff claimed that a woman should be able to have an abortion for any reason or for no reason.
Para. 19 — Quotes Blackmun stating that, until the fetus is viable, the mother can do whatever she wants for whatever reason she wants: “the Constitution of the United States values the convenience, whim or caprice of the putative mother more than life or potential life of the fetus.”
Para. 20 — Refers to the decision to sum it up as holding that the state’s “compelling interest” in the fetus grows as it nears and then achieves viability. With Roe and a companion case, the Court legalized abortion across America.
Para. 21 — McCorvey read about the opinion in the newspaper and stuck to the sidelines, unknown, living with her female partner.
Para. 22 — In the 1980s, she started being active in the abortion rights cause — working in clients, going to rallies, and talking to the media. The big news was that she confessed she hadn’t been raped but had, in fact had consensual sex when she got pregnancy. She just thought rape made a better story for an abortion. The cause of her pregnancy never came up in Roe v. Wade.
Para. 23 — McCorvey’s confession infuriated pro-Life activities who saw her as a liar and a murderer. Pro-Abortion activists said she stood for all women trapped by unfair laws.
Para. 24 — NBC made a movie about Roe v. Wade, with Holly Hunter playing McCorvey. Hunter won an Emmy. Critics liked the movie, even thought it tried to be even-handed. [Bookworm here: Yes, the Times writer really said that.]
Para. 25 — McCorvey attended a Washington, D.C., pro-abortion rally and was on a platform with such famous women as Gloria Steinem, Jane, Fonda, Cybill Shepherd, and Glenn Close. [Bookworm here: Yes, the obituary really wastes space including this star-struck detail.] McCorvey was deeply moved by attendance at the rally, which felt reflected people turning out for her.
Para. 26 — In 1994, Roe confessed in her autobiography that she’d been a bystander to her own case.
Para. 27 — The New York Times reviewed her book and said she’d been a bystander to her own case. [Bookworm here: No kidding — the obituary really makes that self-referential point.]
Para. 28 — In 1995, when McCorvey was working at a “women’s clinic,” an Operation Rescue “provocatively” [Bookworm here: Yes, that’s the obituary’s word] opened an office next door. Rev. Phillip Benham, Operation Rescue’s national director said McCorvey hated this and hated them.
Para. 29 — Eventually, though, Benham and McCorvey talked about things including abortion. He eventually baptized her as a born-again Christian. [Bookworm here: Because this paragraph makes no mention of McCorvey’s change of heart, it’s not red.]
Para. 30 — “Ms. McCorvey promptly disowned her past and began speaking for her newly adopted cause. She blamed abortion rights advocates for violence at abortion clinics.” [Bookworm here: Some magical mental transformation happened because of the God squad leading Norma McCorvey to an unnamed “newly adopted cause” that saw her making wild claims against “abortion rights advocates” for violence at their own clinics. I think I read that right.]
Para. 31 — Quotes McCorvey to the effect that she thinks abortion activists are using violence to collect insurance dollars to fund more clinics. [Bookworm here: Yeah, I definitely read the previous paragraph correctly. The writer is emphasizing that McCorvey went paranoid, stupid, and insane when she switched sides.]
Para. 32 — She wrote a second autobiography and participated in a documentary about her “conversion.” [Bookworm here: Conversion to what? To faith? To pro-Life? Who knows. The obituary just can’t say the words or offer a reason.] She then converted to Roman Catholicism through meetings with Rev. Frank Pavone, of Priests for Life. [Bookworm here: Again, no effort to explain what might be driving these profound changes in her thinking. Just another dopey member of the God squad, I guess. That’s why this paragraph doesn’t deserve to be colored red.]
Para. 33 — Quotes Pavone’s statement on McCorvey’s death, calling her a friend whom abortion activists had exploited and who came to regret her role in the deaths of more than 58 million babies. [Bookworm here: Please note that, while Pavone speaks of 58 million babies, the Times claimed in para. 3 that there were only 50 million abortions in America. Eight million babies is a big numerical difference. Who do you believe?]
Para. 34 — In 1998, McCorvey told a Senate subcommittee that she would dedicate the rest of her life to reversing Roe v. Wade. [Bookworm here: We still don’t know what motivated McCorvey’s change of heart, and the phrase pro-Life is still MIA. The obituary implies that McCorvey was just doing what the priests told her to do, but I’d like to think that this older, wiser woman, having put her painful past behind her, having spent years witnessing the pro-Choice movement turn into a death cult, and having acknowledged her entirely unwitting role in the deaths of 50 million or more babies, made a conscious and principled decision to become pro-Life. Looking at what I wrote, I can understand why the obituary refused to say any of this.]
Para. 35 — Begins the basic bio: Birth name, date of birth, place of birth, identity of parents and sibling. Father left; Mom an alcoholic.
[Bookworm here: How many people do you think are still reading at this point? Heck, I wonder how many of you are still with me!]
Para. 36 — McCorvey was in reform school for theft by age 10. Ended up with a relative who raped her repeatedly. Married at 16 to a wife-beater. Left him and had her first baby.
Para. 37 — Hooked on drugs and alcohol. Left baby with mother — and the police arrested her for abandoning her baby. Without reading the papers she signed, authorized her mother to adopt the baby. Got pregnant again and gave the baby up for adoption. In 1970, got pregnant again.
Para. 38 — Wanted to abort the third pregnancy and ended up with the lawyers who litigated Roe v. Wade.
Para. 39 — In 2005, McCorvey petitioned Supreme Court to have Roe v. Wade overturned for harming women. Petition denied.
Para. 40 — She was active in anti-abortion demonstrations and got arrested at Sonia Sotomayor’s confirmation hearing. She also opposed Obama. She made an add in Florida saying “He murders babies.” [Bookworm here: With that ad, McCorvey might have been referring to the fact that Obama didn’t just support first trimester, second trimester, or even third trimester abortions. Obama was good with allowing babies who failed to die during the abortion but were, instead, born alive, to be put to death or, in a nice Spartan way, just left exposed to the elements until they died. He was not worried about the Kermit Gosnell’s of this world.]
Para. 41 — In 2016, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival included a play called “Roe” in which she has McCorvey and one of the Roe v. Wade attorneys face off against each other. The playwright is Lisa Loomer, and her comment on her play deserves to be quoted in its entirety: “Sarah Weddington, when she approaches the subject of Roe v. Wade, it’s about the law. It’s about choice. It’s about doing something to impact the lives of all women. For Norma McCorvey, Roe is about her. It’s utterly personal.” [Bookworm here: I have two points. First, this paragraph doesn’t earn the color read because it simply insults Norma McCorvey while hiding the pro-Life ideology that led to the insult. Second, maybe it’s just me, but I feel that this quotation can be reframed as follows: “Sarah Weddington, when she approaches the subject of Roe v. Wade, it’s all about letting women who were neither raped nor incest victims (which is a type of rape) escape responsibility for their decision to have sex, or to have unprotected sex, or to have drunken sex (and therefore unprotected sex) when they knew they didn’t want to have a baby or raise a child. For Norma McCorvey, Roe is about the baby. It’s the highest form of humanism in that it speaks on behalf of the 50-58 million babies killed before they were born.”]
In the entire 41 paragraph obituary, the New York Times never once uses the phrase “pro-Life.”