I could out-cuss the most crass of men and women; I could out-drink many of the Dallas taverns' regulars; and I was known for my hot temper. When pro-lifers called me a murderer, I called them worse. When people held up signs of aborted fetuses, I spit in their face.
I had a reputation to protect, after all. As the plaintiff in the infamous Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade, my life was inextricably tied up with abortion. Though I had never had one, abortion was the sun around which my life orbited. I once told a reporter, "This issue is the only thing I live for. I live, eat, breathe, think everything about abortion."
Then the fiery pro-life group Operation Rescue moved in next door.
I called Flip Benham, the brash and bold leader of Operation Rescue, Flip "Venom." Flip called me "responsible for the deaths of 35 million children." We were supposed to be sworn enemies, but due to the persistence of a local real estate agent, we became next door neighbors whose offices shared a common wall.
I will never forget the call I received on March 31, 1995, informing me about the move. I immediately lit up a second cigarette, even though I already had one burning. They don't make nicotine strong enough for situations such as these. Once my nerves were steadied, I called my contacts at CNN, and the media circus began almost immediately.
A Choice for Women was located in North Dallas. The aging one-story office building is U-shaped with a huge parking lot in the center. The abortion clinic was at the bottom of the U, set back about a hundred yards from any public walkway. That wasn't by accident. The abortion clinic owner wanted as much private property as possible between his front door and the sidewalk--where Operation Rescue and other pro-life demonstrators could legally gather.
The Dallas police settled down to an almost hourly routine. The bleep-bleep of a police siren and the flashing blue lights could be heard and seen several times a day for the next few months as O.R. and the abortion clinic clashed out in the parking lot.
Occasionally, the clashes would collapse into conversation. During one friendly banter, I goaded Flip, "What you need is to go to a good Beach Boys concert." Flip answered, "Miss Norma, I haven't been to a Beach Boys concert since 1976." The seemingly innocuous response shook me to the core. All at once, Flip became human to me.
Before, I had thought of Flip as a man who did nothing but yell at abortion clinics and read his Bible. In fact, I even pictured him sleeping with his hands across his chest, Dracula-like, with a big Bible tucked under his arms. The thought that he was a real person--a guy who had once even gone to a Beach Boys concert--never occurred to me. Now that it had, I saw him in a new light.
I continued the teasing. "Come on, Flip, I didn't know you were ever a sinner." "Miss Norma," Flip said, "Im a great big sinner, saved by a great big God." Of all the things I expected Flip to say, this wasn't one of them. I didn't like to think of Flip as human.
But this "unreal" Flip was telling me that he was a sinner, that he had even gone to a Beach Boys concert! I couldn't connect that with the "fanatics" I had made the rescuers out to be; and it took a while for me to look past the confrontational tactics for which Flip was known. As we chatted outside on the bench between our offices, however, Flip began sharing some stories of his past and out of this vulnerability an unlikely friendship was born.
Other O.R. volunteers also began reaching out to me, dropping Scriptures and snippets of the Gospel at my feet whenever I seemed willing to receive them. In return, I explained my crystals and book of Runes. It wasn't exactly Elijah and the prophets of Baal, but in both of our minds it was clearly a case of "may the true God win."
As my mind was challenged to consider the truth of the Gospel, God began working on my heart through a 7-year-old girl named Emily, the daughter of O.R. volunteer Ronda Mackey.
Quite understandably, I had difficulty relating to children. I had given birth to three, all of whom had been placed for adoption (one of them against my will). And because I worked in an abortion clinic, I was fearful of bonding with anyone so young. It was part of my denial. When you know what is happening to the children behind closed doors, it's difficult to become attached to them outside.
Emily's blatant affection, frequent hugs, and direct pursuit disarmed me. The little girl's interest was all the more surprising considering Emily made it very clear that her acceptance of me wasn't an acceptance of my lifestyle. Early on in our relationship, I explained to Emily, "I like kids and wouldn't let anyone hurt little kids," to which Emily responded, "Then why do you let them kill the babies at the clinic?"
On another occasion, I invited Emily into my office. As I made appointments, Emily kept herself occupied. During one phone call, I lost my temper and said to a caller, "I'd just as soon see you in hell as see you in here," and Emily responded, "You don't have to go to hell, Miss Norma. You can pray right now and Jesus will forgive you."
This childlike faith cut open my heart, making me receptive to the truth being shared by the adult volunteers at Rescue. I wasn't won over by compelling apologetics. I had a ninth grade education and a very soft heart. While the O.R. adults targeted my mind, Emily went straight for the heart. And over time, Emily began to personify the issue of abortion--especially when Ronda broke down and told me that Emily had almost been aborted.
Ronda was engaged when Emily was conceived, and nobody was very happy about it. Ronda's future in-laws, her mother, and her fiancee all pressured her to get an abortion during the first trimester. Ronda admits that she gave abortion serious consideration, at one point even giving her verbal assent to pursue it; but her memories of a high school friend's emotional devastation following an abortion strengthened Ronda's resolve to let Emily live.
Shortly after Ronda told me the long form of this story, I was walking outside a furniture store, shopping with Ronda and the girls. I have a decidedly mystical bent to my nature, and I was stunned when I saw Ronda's bumper sticker, "Abortion Stops a Beating Heart," which has a vividly red heart on the side.
All the sudden, I saw Emily's heart in that sticker, and it just about destroyed me when I realized that "my law" (as I once fondly referred to Roe v. Wade) had almost snuffed out young Emily's life. I asked to be taken home immediately, but later that afternoon, I spent over an hour on the phone with Ronda and a deep friendship was solidified.
I was forever changed by this experience. Abortion was no longer an "abstract right." It had a face now, in a little girl named Emily.
Emotionally, I was ready for a change. My alienation with the abortion movement was practically legendary, even before I became a Christian. Most of the abortion advocacy movement was afraid of my blue collar, tough-talking and unrefined ways. I was raised as a poor Louisiana girl who spent a good part of my childhood in reform schools. I ran away from home when I was ten, and spent several decades supporting myself with odd jobs--a carnival barker, a waitress, a bartender, cleaning apartments, construction work, and the like.
I spoke my mind, and the abortion movement's leadership kept as wide a hedge around me as possible. I wasn't asked to address the huge 1989 march in Washington, nor was I even invited to the 1993 twentieth anniversary celebration of Roe v Wade, held at the White House.
Such a blatant snub had understandable roots. I had publicly embarrassed Kate Michelman during Senate hearings over the Supreme Court nomination of David Souter. I had experienced a raucous falling out with my attourney, Sarah Weddington, whom I believed had "dumped" me. And I frequently caught abortion clinic directors off-guard by openly questioning the morality of some (particularly late-term) abortions. The fall-out with Weddington hurt me the most. I was chosen [to sign the affidavit] because Sarah Weddington needed someone who would sign the paper and fade into the background, never coming out and always keeping silent.
As my friendship with Flip drew national attention, I started receiving even more ridicule from my abortion advocate "friends." I soon found myself in the uncomfortable situation of being increasingly alienated from those on my side of the issue, and befriended by my alleged "enemies." Before long, I started coming to work simply so I could talk to the rescuers. I was scheduled to work just two days a week, but, I couldn't wait that long to get one of Emily's hugs.
It might bother some that the story of my actual conversion does not mimic the intellectual engagement of Augustine's "take and read," Pascal's wager, or C.S Lewis' famous motorcycle ride. I had a much different disposition, and I was challenged by a more "mystical" approach.
"Weird" things started to happen. My co-workers began hearing the sound of "little babies running down the hall." I went out one morning to cut some wild sunflowers for the recovery room, and I was certain I heard a little baby's laugh. I tore into the bush, scratching my arms, looking for the child, but found nothing but leaves. I looked up into the sky and said, "Okay, God, I don't know what you're doing up there, but I wish you would stop this. It isn't funny."
My spontaneous prayer shocked me as much as had the bush's laughter. I never talked to God. Had no reason to. He was sort of the enemy, after all. So what was I doing talking to Him now?
That day, a dull sadness came over me. I wasn't panicked anymore, I was just very, very sad, as if I were mourning the death of something precious. It came suddenly, strong enough to physically hurt my heart. I felt like a really close friend had died, or that many close friends had died--but nobody came to mind. Still, I couldn't shake the sadness.
I went home and spent the rest of the day sitting on my front porch. When my friend, Connie Gonzales, came home, she took one look at me and asked, "Are you okay?" I looked half-dead as I responded in a dead-panned voice, "I'm fine. I think I'm losing my mind, but I'm okay."
The confrontation between rescue volunteers and the abortion clinic workers became particularly acute on Thursdays through Saturdays, when abortions were actually performed. I was torn apart by the fact that for four days out of the week, myself and Ronda (not to mention the other volunteers at Rescue) were the best of friends, but on the other three we were bitter enemies.
During one abortion day confrontation, I charged up to Anne Hollacher, an O.R. volunteer who was holding a picket sign, and yelled, "You can't park on the same place you're picketing. Move the car!" "No, I'm not moving my car," Anne responded. "This is our parking lot too."
I called Anne every name I could think of, which was usually enough to make the toughest protesters wilt, but Anne maintained her composure. When I saw that Anne wouldn't budge, I spit in her face. Anne smiled. I was furious. "How dare you look at me like that?" I screamed. "How dare you smile at me?" Anne politely wiped the spit off her face with her sleeve. "Jesus loves you and so do I" she said. "And I forgive you."
It would have taken several clinic workers to pull me away from Anne except that I suddenly experienced severe chest pains and had to remove myself from the scene to catch my breath. Five minutes later, Ronda and the girls showed up, the girls eager to give me a hug, and I was overwhelmed by such a generous display of love after I had nursed so bitter a hatred. The confusion inside me became intense. I couldn't stand the thought of losing Ronda's friendship, and I wasn't about to let Emily be taken out of my life. But how long could we maintain a friendship when abortion stood between us?
Miss Norma," Emily cooed one afternoon, "it would be sooo cool if you would come to church with us." I didn't want to disappoint Emily directly, so I answered, "Well, Emily, we'll have to be cool another time. I can't go to church with you this weekend." If I didn't want to offend Emily by an abrupt denial, I needn't have worried. Emily wasn't about to give up. Every morning, Ronda heard Emily pray, "Dear God, please don't let any babies be killed and make it so that abortion will end. And help miss Norma to come to Jesus."
Ronda didn't want Emily to be disillusioned about God not answering her prayers, so she explained, "God always answers our prayers, Emily, but Miss Norma has a choice to make here. She probably won't choose to follow Jesus. That's Miss Norma's fault, not God's. I don't want you to think God isn't listening to your prayers simply because Miss Norma doesn't become a Christian." Emily smiled. "She's going come to know Jesus, mama." And with the faith of a child, Emily kept asking if t would come with her to church.
Finally, I said yes. I didn't agree to go to church out of a sudden need for God in my life. I just grew tired of telling Emily "no," so I said "yes." Ronda was skeptical. "Norma? In church?" But when they went to pick me up, I was dressed and ready to go.
Whatever my reasons for going, one sermon was all I needed. Pastor Morris Sheats of Hillcrest Church ended his sermon with a compelling evangelistic call from John 3:16 asking, "Is anyone here tired of living a sinner's life?" Immediately I felt overwhelmed with my need to respond.
How could I say no? I had been tired of it for years, but it was the only life I knew! I cautiously raised my hand, then opened my eyes and looked up to see if that really was my hand raised up high. It was. I couldn't believe it. I walked forward, leaning heavily on Ronda for support.
When I reached Pastor Sheats, I saw Jesus in his eyes. It made me feel so incredibly sorry for all my sins, especially for my role in legalizing abortion. I just kept repeating over and over, "I just want to undo all the evil I've done in this world. I'm so sorry, God. I'm so, so sorry. As far as abortion is concerned, I just want to undo it. I want it all to just go away." Finally, I stopped crying and broke into the biggest smile of my life. I no longer felt the pressure of my sin pushing down on my shoulders. The release was so quick that I felt like I could almost float outside.
Though abortion was tied up in my repentance, the political ramifications of my conversion wouldn't follow for several weeks.
When my conversion became public knowledge, I spoke openly to reporters about still supporting legalized abortion in the first trimester. The media was quick to use this to downplay the seriousness of my conversion, saying I typified the "general ambivalence" of our culture over abortion. But a few weeks after my conversion, I was sitting in O.R.'s offices when I noticed a fetal development poster. The progression was so obvious, the eyes were so sweet. It hurt my heart, just looking at them.
I ran outside and finally, it dawned on me. "Norma," I said to myself, "They're right." I had worked with pregnant women for years. I had been through three pregnancies and deliveries myself. I should have known. Yet something in that poster made me lose my breath. I kept seeing the picture of that tiny, 10-week-old embryo, and I said to myself, that's a baby! It's as if blinders just fell off my eyes and I suddenly understood the truth--that's a baby!
I felt "crushed" under the truth of this realization. I had to face up to the awful reality. Abortion wasn't about 'products of conception.' It wasn't about 'missed periods.' It was about children being killed in their mother's wombs. All those years I was wrong. Signing that affidavit, I was wrong. Working in an abortion clinic, I was wrong. No more of this first trimester, second trimester, third trimester stuff. Abortion--at any point--was wrong. It was so clear. Painfully clear.
Two years after my conversion, I have since left Operation Rescue. After a grueling eleven-day encounter in San Diego in 1996, I began having serious reservations about whether I was cut out for the intense confrontations which often face Rescue volunteers. Because of my loyalty and affection for the people involved in Rescue, however, it took me until the early summer of 1997 to make the break complete.
Though every "re-alignment" creates tension, I am still appreciative and respectful toward Flip. Ronda Mackey has joined me in leaving O.R. and the two of us have set up a ministry to handle my increasing invitations to speak and appear at various pro-life events. Instead of being under the O.R. umbrella, I now report regularly to the pastors at Hillcrest Church.
My conversion is one for the ages. The timing was precise--O.R. was next door to my clinic for less than a year (Flip has said, "We moved in just long enough to pick up Miss Norma")--but it wasn't until I had a regenerated heart that the truth of what abortion does could find a place in my intellect. Once that truth took hold, there was no turning back.
"I'm one hundred percent sold out to Jesus and one hundred percent pro-life," I like to say. "No exceptions. No compromise."
Gary Thomas is a co-author with Norma McCorvey of Won by Love, the story of
Norma's conversion, published this month (January 1998) by Thomas Nelson Publishers.