I knew the real Jane Roe

The World
Norma McCorvey, the anonymous plaintiff known as Jane Roe in the Supreme Court's landmark 1973 Roe vs. Wade ruling

Norma McCorvey, the anonymous plaintiff known as Jane Roe in the Supreme Court's landmark 1973 Roe vs. Wade ruling legalizing abortion in the United States, testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee along with Sandra Cano, the "Doe" in the Doe v. Bolton Supreme Court case, on June 23, 2005.

Shaun Heasley/Reuters

I sat in the car for three hours while Norma McCorvey, the face of the abortion-rights movement, was in the process of becoming Norma McCorvey, the face of the anti-abortion movement. 

Little did I know that while she had me wait in the car, she was washing away her past. McCorvey died this past weekend. She was 69. 

Her recent passing brought me back to that pivotal moment in the car with McCorvey.

She called me a few days earlier, wanting me to meet her in the parking lot of a women's clinic where she once worked. 

"Just follow me and don't ask questions," she demanded. 

I followed her to Garland, a city northeast of Dallas, where oak and cypress trees lined the streets and where lawns were manicured to a perfect carpet-like texture. 

Don't leave, she told me; it will be worth it. 

Two TV news satellite trucks had parked down the street, but the crew was nowhere in sight.  

What I didn't realize was that I was sitting outside the home of Flip Benham, the very vocal anti-abortion leader of Operation Rescue. He and other anti-abortion protesters, whom he liked to call Flip's Army, were known to block the entrances to women's health clinics where abortions were often performed. 

McCorvey had once called Flip the "biggest horse's ass" she ever encountered in the "opposition." Now she was inside his home. 

I remember my first meeting with McCorvey.

It was 1994, at a women's clinic in North Dallas. She was answering phones and making sure patients had signed in correctly. She looked at me as though she'd seen me before. She recognized me as one of the journalists asking questions during political debates hosted by my station, KERA-North Texas Public Broadcasting.

"Are you here for an abortion?" she asked me pointedly.

No, I told her. I was there to interview one of the directors of the clinic regarding anti-abortion protesters blocking the entrance to the building. 

They're damn idiots, she said. They have no right hassling the women who come here for any kind of treatment.

I remember very clearly her words because she was forceful when she spoke.   

You have a nice face, and you did well against those candidates, she told me. "Call me." And she handed me a piece of paper torn from a notepad with her phone number written in bold.  

"I'm Norma, and you will want to talk with me," she said confidently. 

I had no idea who she was. Why would I want to call her?  She wasn't in charge of the clinic. She wasn't the one risking her career performing the procedures. I tucked the note in my reporter's bag and never gave it another thought. 

Then, she made news when her real identity became known.  

Over the years, she'd invite me up to her home for interviews. And she always made a point to show me the plastic pink flamingos in her front yard. She wanted me to buy her a plastic palm tree when she found out I was from Hawaii and going home for the holidays.   

"Not too big," she said. "Four feet, maybe."   

I never did get her that palm tree.  

But here I was, sitting in my car under an oak tree in front of the house of a man she hated. I waited.

Three hours and 15 minutes later, she walked out, hair wet and a smile on her face. 

"I've been baptized," she shouted. "Flip did it in his pool."  

She wanted me to touch her hair, to make sure I knew it was wet from her baptism in Benham's swimming pool.   

She told me she was no longer "in favor of abortion" — her words. 

Now, McCorvey could often skirt the truth when she told her stories. Sometimes details changed or never happened.  

Was this another one of her wild stories?    

She said I had 10 minutes to turn on my recorder and interview her because she had to run back inside to her "new family."

She promised me she wouldn't talk to the national press, who knew ahead of time what was happening, didn't have to sit in the car and got to videotape her baptism. 

Details are fuzzy here on what exactly she told me. She had a tendency to ramble on and change topic in the middle of a sentence.    

Basically, McCorvey was giving up on everything she had become in the past two decades — since being the plaintiff in the landmark Supreme Court case legalizing abortion in the US. 

She was moving out of the home she shared with Connie Rodrigues, her lover for more than 30 years. She was moving in temporarily with Flip Benham and she was going to be on the front lines of the anti-abortion protests.   

It's ironic. McCorvey claimed she never wanted to be in the spotlight and that she always said she hated that she was at the center of a lawsuit she never wanted to get involved in in the first place. 

Now, here she was wanting to be front and center again. 

In the back of my mind, I thought about her real reasons for changing her mind. 

She wasn't earning the kind of money she felt she deserved because of her case. 

And she wasn't getting the media attention that had consumed her since her name became public.

Her story had already been told. Maybe she felt no one was interested.   

"I am in favor of abortion," she once told me. She didn't mean pro-choice. She wanted women to get abortions. She told me she was upset when her daughter Melissa was pregnant. She claimed she tried to convince Melissa to get an abortion, and they didn't speak for a few years.

After her baptism, McCorvey said she was glad her daughter didn't listen to her. She even said she no longer felt angry toward the "Roe baby." McCorvey had given birth before the US Supreme Court ruling in her favor, and the baby was given up for adoption immediately. 

McCorvey said she was going to pray for the Roe baby every day and hoped one day to meet. 

This was a different McCorvey than I had known in nearly two years reporting on her.  

She no longer showed off her tattoos or wore loose tank tops with pictures of heavy metal bands on the front. She no longer smoked, at least that's what she told me.  

And she said she no longer swore or used colorful language.

When I told her I was moving from Dallas to Boston, she leaned in and loudly whispered, "Keep your legs shut and don't get pregnant [big pause] — unless you plan on keeping it, you hear?"

Maybe there was still a little bit of the old McCorvey inside.