While FX’s AKA Jane Roe documentary featured Roe v. Wade plaintiff Norma McCorvey’s “deathbed confession” that her pro-life conversion had been an act, her friends in the pro-life movement have contested and questioned this portrayal.
Among those who knew her in her final days was Pamela Whitehead, the director of ProLove Ministries, an organization that works “to connect resources to help identify blind spots in the pro-life movement.”
Whitehead spoke with the Register about her experience with McCorvey, why she felt compelled to apologize to her on behalf of pro-lifers, and what the pro-life movement could learn from the complicated legacy of Jane Roe.
What was your experience with Norma McCorvey?
My interaction with Norma was near the end of her life. I worked in the emergency room at Houston Methodist Hospital in Katy, Texas. I was in the emergency room working on second shift one night when she came in by ambulance. I let her know that I knew who she was; and she kind of drew back and did something like put her head into her pillow, as if she was pulling away from me because she didn’t know where I stood. She didn’t know if I was pro-life, pro-choice whatever.
Looking back on that now, I can understand why her reaction was that way. I told her, “Hey, I work part time for Abby Johnson,” and she kind of relaxed. So obviously that put her at ease, and we began to talk. We talked about Jesus; we didn’t talk so much about abortion or what she had done or any of that.
I shared a bit about my own experience with her, and I felt led — honestly, I didn’t know where it was coming from except that it was God. But I felt led to ask her for forgiveness on behalf of the pro-life movement. When I saw her come in, she came in by ambulance, and there was nobody with her. She was alone, and when I saw her name, I knew who she was. I know everybody doesn’t know who she is. I was just sad, and this flash came over me — do we even value her life? Because here she is, she’s at the end of her life, and, I hate to say it, but her name’s been used on both sides; and here she is, regardless of what side she sits on, pro-life, pro-choice, whatever. None of those people are here.
She came back into the hospital a few weeks after that, and she wasn’t alone. She came in alone, but her family actually came in soon after, and I was assigned to her bay again and went in, and I looked, and I knew her daughter. I had worked with her daughter for three years and had no idea that she was Norma McCorvey’s daughter; and to me, in all of it, I’m thinking, “Look what God did.”
How does your own experience with abortion relate to Norma McCorvey’s?
I was born in 1973 to a 15-year-old mom whose first choice was abortion. My mother decided that she was going to have an abortion, and my grandfather stood up and said, “No, you’re not.” And then I had my own abortion. Here I am, I end up on the other side of this issue in the pro-life movement, and I’m able to meet this woman who impacted my life indirectly. And so, to me, it was a grace that God gave me and her maybe. I can’t imagine what was going through her mind throughout her life. But in meeting her, I thought that she’s someone that I would have hung out with; she was funny, and she had a personality. She wasn’t bland; she was full of flavor, and she was also loved.
What other interactions did you have with her?
The first time she came to the hospital, because she was brought in by ambulance, there was nobody there to take her home. My thought was, my goodness, she didn’t have anybody to take her home; and so I asked her, “Who’s coming to get you?” And she said, “I don’t have anybody.” And I said, “Well, I’ll give you my cellphone number; and if you need a ride, text me, and I’ll come and get you.” She ended up not needing that ride because she got admitted that night, but we did text back and forth a few times. Nothing deep — it was just friendly texting, friendly conversation, but I would check on her, see if she needed anything. By this time, her daughter — they had been estranged for a long time; their relationship was fractured — but between that visit and the next visit, her daughter showed up. It was pretty powerful to see that happen.
We prayed together, all of us, because I knew Melissa, and she trusted me and I was caring for her mom, in a way. We prayed that restoration would happen and just thanked God for redemption. The Norma that I saw and the Norma that was portrayed in that documentary are not the same. People have defenses that they put up. We have a way of putting up a defense, and Norma’s one of those people. She liked to be liked. You never know what someone’s going to say in any situation, especially if they’re led.
What did you observe of her Catholic faith?
When she came into the emergency room that night, in the ambulance, she was clutching a rosary — and I’m not Catholic; I’m an evangelical Christian. Every person, whether you’re a person of faith or not, knows what a rosary is and knows what it represents, and it’s my understanding that a rosary is literally a weapon. She was at war, and she had her rosary with her, and she was fighting for her life. Who do you turn to in that time? She turned to Jesus. So I think that speaks volumes about where she stood and what was important to her. When you think you’re at the end of your life, I think that says a lot. No one can take that from those of us who were there in the last weeks.
What did you think of her statements in the documentary saying she was “an actress” and that essentially it wasn’t her problem if a woman wanted to have an abortion?
When I heard that all I could think was “What was the question?” I mean, that’s really what I thought. What led into this discussion? Because she could’ve been talking about 15 years ago — it’s documented across the board that she flip-flopped, she wavered, but she never really came out and said that abortion was right. We don’t hear that in any of the clips in the documentary that she was this pro-abortion lobbyist. We don’t hear that from her; and so, to me, I think they put words in her mouth, they inferred a lot, and when I read the headlines, all I think is “hype” and “clickbait.” It’s just a way to get this documentary out there to be seen and people who are impressionable to take it as truth. That’s why we really need a firm, moral foundation.
What did you think of the way they portrayed the pro-life movement in the documentary?
I don’t necessarily agree with the way that some of those pro-lifers, portrayed in the film, advocate. I don’t believe in hollering at women in front of an abortion clinic. I don’t think that using a speaker and a microphone in any way is helpful. I don’t think that calling an abortion facility an abortion mill is helpful. There are people working inside that facility who need the love of Christ, just like we all do. I just don’t think that dehumanizing anyone is ever okay, and I think that faith works by love, according to Galatians 5:6. You can talk about your faith, you can talk about Scripture, you can do all these things, but without love it’s nothing.
The pro-life movement that they portrayed in that documentary is what I would call the old guard. There are a lot of things in the pro-life movement that I would love to see change; and because I want to see them change, I’ve become a part of something that I believe is creating a proactive movement rather than a reactive one. Abby [Johnson] made me executive director of ProLove ministries for that reason. Our goal is to bring new ideas to solve old problems. We cannot continue to do things the way that we’ve been doing them, because we are not getting the results that we want. Yes, there are babies being saved from abortion — but then what? Are we serving these women well? Are we empowering these women? Are we even creating a culture where they believe that it’s worth bringing a child into this world?
Years ago, before the internet, I understand why people did things the way that they did them. You had to, in some way, create almost an agitation to get people involved. There had to be some sort of media created so people would act in civil disobedience and get arrested. I understand why they did that, because it would garner some attention, which would draw eyes to the movement and would hopefully get people engaged. The same with graphic images: I absolutely understand why people used those for many years, because we didn’t have the information available to us like we have now.
But in this day and age, where you can upload videos to Facebook, where you can have a million followers on Twitter and Instagram and everything else, I just don’t see where some of those same methods and tactics are helpful. We have got to do things differently, and that whole regime or old guard is still doing things the same way that they were done many years ago. We love, absolutely love Sidewalk Advocates for Life and the methods that they use in front of the abortion facility — peaceful, prayerful, law-abiding. That’s kind of the mantra there. Law-abiding is very important; it’s a good witness.
Where do you see room for improvement for the pro-life movement?
If we look at people as image-bearers of Christ, regardless of their belief, then, really, our perspective would change; and I think it would change this whole movement, if we would really begin to see people through that lens. But that requires us to have our own healing. So many of us working in this movement — and it was shown in this documentary — have our own wounds that need to be healed; and some people are working out of those wounds, and so hurt people hurt people. Without that healing, what is it that we’re offering?
Lauretta Brown is the Register’s Washington-based staff writer.
This story was updated after posting.