In Memory of Norma McCorvey: Roe vs. Abortion
by Lord Alton of Liverpool
The following article was written in 2010. We reproduce it here with the kind permission of Lord Alton of Liverpool, in remembrance of Norma McCorvey, who died recently at the age of 69.
A few months ago I addressed a hearing in the US Senate. After it was over, we talked informally about the contrast between the urgency and passion surrounding the American debate about abortion – compared with the indifference in the UK.
I told my hosts that I very much wanted to talk to Norma McCorvey about why this is so. It was her legal case in the Supreme Court, fought under the pseudonym, Jane Roe, which legalised abortion in America in 1973. One of the details that few people know is that having won her case she delivered her baby and gave her up for adoption: baby “Roe” was never aborted.
Norma McCorvey’s reappraisal of the abortion issue is synonymous with the sea change that has taken place in the US. Although she says “The British have never needed a Jane Roe. I heartily wish I had never been Jane Roe for my country”, I suspect we now need a Norma McCorvey.
The decision of this one-time icon of the abortion rights movement to change her mind, and to spend her whole life working for the right to life, has acted as a catalyst in the US. Following her decision to take a pro-life position she also become a Catholic. Her personal journey mirrors that of the 1940s activist, Dorothy Day, and that of Dr. Bernard Nathanson, the New York abortionist who, having been responsible for 75,000 abortions, could no longer collaborate in a lucrative but merciless industry. It was film footage from his clinic that was the basis for the film The Silent Scream that shows the unborn child trying to escape Nathanson’s instruments.
My friends in Washington did arrange for Norma McCorvey and I to have our conversation. I asked her whether she would visit Britain as the guest of the All Party Parliamentary Pro-Life Group (not the ‘anti-abortion’ group as the BBC have instructed their journalists to call us: we’re not ‘anti’ anything, we’re positively pro-life for the woman and her child). With the help of Right To Life and LIFE whose annual conference she addressed in Northampton last Saturday, a visit to the UK was arranged. Her testimony to Peers and MPs was a moving story and a poignant challenge from a woman who has had the courage to change her mind.
Norma McCorvey’s address was given in Parliament on the same day that a survey of 5,000 British teenagers was published by Bliss magazine. It reported that two thirds of our teenage children believe that there are far too many abortions in Britain. In truth, who could disagree? There have been 6 million abortions in Britain since 1967 600 every working day. Last year there was a small, 0.5% fall in the total number of abortions to 175,600: 78% of which were funded by the tax payer. One in five pregnancies now ends in abortion.
Notoriously, we even permit it right up to birth on a disabled child – for reasons such as a club foot or a cleft palate – but to what else has unlimited abortion led? Britain’s abandonment of a belief in the sanctity of human life has paved the way for one million human embryos to be destroyed or experimented upon in the past ten years. It has also led to the routine creation and destruction of human embryos for so-called therapeutic cloning. We create life, only to plunder it for life-giving stem cells and then we destroy the donor.
It’s the ultimate in consumerism. We destroy life before birth with barely a thought and now disabled people and the terminally ill are in our sights. Just the night before Norma McCorvey spoke in Parliament the House of Lords debated the latest euthanasia Bill seeking to permit the killing of the terminally ill. It will be referred on Wednesday to a House of Lords Select Committee. Despite the protests of Lady Warnock and others, who dispute ‘the slippery slope’ argument, when you authorise a little killing, you can quickly see to what it leads.
The picture in America has been little different. There have been 44 million abortions since the Supreme Court upheld Norma McCorvey’s claim that the decision of the Texas district attorney, Henry Wade, had infringed her constitutional right to seek an abortion. Roe v Wade was heralded as a fundamental breakthrough in human rights. In reality it has left a trail of bitterness and blood. There are about 1.3 million abortions each year in the US, over 3,500 every working day: 150 every hour, one every 24 seconds.
The sheer scale of abortion is a key reason why Americans have become so passionate about this issue. It is a fact that in the millennium year of 2,000 more children died from abortion than Americans died in the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, World Wars I and II, and the wars in Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf and Iraq combined. More nascent American lives lost in one year than in all those conflicts combined.
As Norma McCorvey ruefully said at Westminster, “I don’t feel heroic over a law that has killed millions of babies”. Yet, she is also entitled to the comfort of knowing that her brave decision in 1995 to say she was wrong has started to change minds and hearts in the US. After reaching a high point of 1.6 million in 1990, the number of abortions performed annually in the US has dropped to levels not seen since the late 1970s and targeted and highly effective advertising in some States, pointing to the alternatives and offering practical help, has seen truly dramatic falls.
Yet Norma McCorvey knows better than anyone that she has taken on a powerful and well-organised industry. Last year alone the US abortion industry generated $400 million and like its British counterpart it employs ‘doctors’ and ‘nurses’ who do nothing else. One doctor told a committee chaired by Lord Rawlinson of Ewall QC that he had personally generated over $3 million in income from the abortions he had undertaken.
Norma McCorvey says she was used by lawyers out to make a name for themselves in 1973: “As Jane Roe I was a guinea pig for two ambitious lawyers with their own agenda”. They didn’t even bother to tell her about the Supreme Court decision. Like everyone else, “I read it in the newspaper”.
If she saw the abortion lobby from the inside, she also saw the industry the same way. For several years she worked in abortion clinics, which, she told parliamentarians, were often so filthy that they were no better than the back street premises which legal abortion was supposed to replace. She also began to understand that few abortions had anything to do with hard cases. In the UK last year just 1% (1,800 abortions) were under ground E (risk of disability). 98% are done under the social clause. If ever you needed proof that ‘hard cases make bad laws’ this surely is it.
McCorvey saw first hand how abortion was being used to get rid of babies because of their gender, for social convenience, or because it was simply a new form of contraception. In the clinics she met women who were on their eight and ninth abortions. “‘Who’s counting?’, one of them asked me”. Another told her she was having the abortion because the baby was a girl, “but we wanted a boy”.
She also describes how a woman in her second trimester began her abortion, “suddenly coughed and the baby was flushed out, still in the placenta sac. A new girl who was working with me lifted the sheet and said to me: ‘I thought you said they weren’t babies?’ She was right. The foetus was very much a baby”.
Devastated by all of this, she became chronically depressed, began drinking heavily, and started to use drugs. She kept questioning what it was with which she had become synonymous. When women presented for abortion she began urging them to “search their heart and their soul: talk it over again with the child’s father, with your parents, with your friends”, she would urge. “Why not carry the baby to full term and let it be adopted?” she asked. She was soon sacked.
In 1995 she literally moved next door from the abortion clinic at which she was working into the offices of the pro-life group Operation Rescue. In 1998 she published her testimony Won By Love and established her own lay ministry, Roe No More. Later in the year, she was received into the Catholic Church. She says that through her Christian faith she has been able “to taste true love and the sense of forgiveness” that each of us needs.
Roe No More says its mandate is “to spread the truth and to know things as they are”. Her statement that “I’m being true to myself and that is all that matters to me and God” is profoundly challenging to anyone who takes the trouble to listen to her.
At the end of her address to Peers and MPs Norma McCorvey handed me copies of 1,000 affidavits that she has collected from post-abortive women. These sworn statements make for harrowing reading. They give the lie that choices carry no consequences. The law may say it’s just “my right to choose”, but these accounts tell a very different story.
You cannot trivialise the taking of your own child’s life. The developing life of a child cannot be reduced to yet another of life’s choices. You may be able to scrape the baby out of a mother’s womb, but never out of her heart.
What Norma McCorvey’s story illustrates is that we don’t need false moralising about all of this. Few of us are in a position to do that. What we do need to do is to get real. As Norma McCorvey concluded: “This has long ceased to be a feminist issue about a woman’s right to choose”. Perhaps her courage in coming to Britain and telling her story might trigger a new debate about what it is we permit with barely a murmur of protest.
Lord Alton of Liverpool is a Senior Member of the All Party Parliamentary Pro-Life Group, and served for 18 years in the House of Commons. He is a Cross-bench (Independent) Life Peer.