Rob Schenck, once a fierce anti-abortion crusader, was close to the ever-controversial Norma McCorvey.
Never heard of her?
Well, yes, you have heard of her.
Norma McCorvey is better known as the Jane Roe of the landmark 1973 Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade. The court’s ruling legalized abortion and shook America. That shaking has never ended.
“Oh, my goodness” Schenck says by phone from Washington, D.C. “She was a very complicated person. Enjoyable, very enjoyable. Witty, sassy, candid. She was earthy, unpretentious. And, of course, she carried with her a history in her person, which made her very interesting.”
Norma McCorvey did not undergo a legal abortion. The Supreme Court ruling came after the birth of her third child.
But she was not done with public life. In 1995, McCorvey was baptized in a backyard swimming pool in Dallas. Jane Roe, to much fanfare, announced she opposed abortion, which led her to meeting Schenck.
At the time, Schenck was a leader in Operation Rescue, an anti-abortion group. He had been arrested by the Secret Service in 1992 for his part in thrusting an aborted fetus toward the face of Democratic candidate Bill Clinton.
McCorvey became a celebrity in the anti-abortion movement, but her role was complex.
“She was a heavy drinker, chain smoker and cursed like a sailor,” Schenck says. He’s laughing, not judging, as he lists her vices. Schenck often heard anti-abortion crusaders whispering, “We can’t keep her around. She can’t be a spokesman when she engages in these behaviors.”
Schenck, seemingly a sincere anti-abortion spokesman, harbored a troubling secret.
She had never changed her views of abortion.
This month, the cable station FX released the documentary “AKA Jane Roe,” which tells McCorvey’s story. In a 2017 interview, filmed a few weeks before her death, McCorvey stares at the camera and says, “This is my deathbed confession.”
“I took their money and they put me out in front of the camera and told me what to say, and that’s what I’d say.”
“It was all an act?” director Nick Sweeney asks.
“Yeah,” McCorvey answers. “I was good at it, too.”
By the time of McCorvey’s confession, Schenck had undergone vast changes. He remains a devout Christian, but his view of abortion has transformed.
“Passing extreme anti-abortion laws and overturning Roe will leave poor women desperate and the children they bear bereft of what they need to flourish,” Schenck wrote in a 2019 New York Times column. “This should not be anyone’s idea of victory. Anyone who thinks otherwise is indeed a fool.”
His mistake, Schenck says, was oversimplifying a complicated issue.
“I was missing the human complexity to it,” he says. “When I was in front of abortion clinics, blockading doors, passing out literature, sometimes yelling slogans, I was often missing the person going into the abortion clinic, whether that was a woman or a man or an abortion provider, whoever. I missed their personhood.
“In the pro-life movement we spoke so much about the personhood of the unborn child but we missed the personhood of the other human beings involved in the drama, and there were lots of persons. I did not respect that they were going through very frightening human experience.
“I regret that.”
Schenck missed, he says, the humanity of McCorvey. He saw a trophy for the anti-abortion movement, but he missed the sorrow in her life. Her mother often struck her. She struggled with drug abuse. Her husband mistreated her during a brief marriage. She did not raise her three children.
“I’m sorry that I didn’t appreciate the sadder parts of her story, her experience, her pain,” Schenck says. “I saw glimpses of it, but I failed to stop long enough to appreciate it and relate to her in that dimension of who she was.
“I regret that terribly.”
Today, Schenck celebrates the grace of God and the nuance and mystery of faith.
“You know,” he says, “many Christians worry terribly about where they stand with God in terms of salvation and whether we’re doing mostly right or mostly wrong when in fact we can be very certain about those things when we examine the ways God relates to his human creation.”
In Scripture, Schenck reads the lives of highly flawed women and men — David, Rebekah, Jacob, Leah, Solomon, Peter, Paul and so many others. Norma McCorvey, no doubt, was highly flawed, too.
“God seems to specialize in grossly imperfect people and that should be very comforting to all of us,” Schenck says. “It certainly leaves us with an appreciation for how expansive his love is. Divine love is unfathomably wide.
“Human love is very narrow.”