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A Woman's Right to Change Her Mind : Psychology: Norma McCorvey has been a pivotal figure in the abortion rights movement. Her embrace of Operation Rescue has shocked many, but experts say it is a classic case of a person trying to resolve a deep ambivalence.

August 15, 1995|LYNN SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

She was a ninth-grade dropout thrust at random into the headlights of a divisive social movement--but she was also a powerful symbol. It's no wonder, analysts say, she flipped over last week from the complex, intellectual ideology of the abortion rights movement to the security of a fundamentalist faith dedicated to "saving babies." Norma McCorvey, they say, is a classic religious convert, a woman searching for meaning and structure in an ambivalent world.

For many years, McCorvey was the silent, invisible "Jane Roe" plaintiff in the landmark 1973 Roe vs. Wade ruling. Then, in 1980 she came out as Norma McCorvey, a troubled product of reform schools whose third unwanted pregnancy vaulted her to symbolic status as the woman who legalized abortion in the United States.

Last week, a fascinated national television audience watched as McCorvey, 47, publicly switched sides, saying she had found God and was rededicating her life to "saving babies." Cameras rolled as a fundamentalist pastor baptized her in a back-yard swimming pool in a Dallas suburb, then again later as she tried to explain in an interview why she is volunteering for Operation Rescue, a fundamentalist protest group that organizes clinic blockades.

Analysts agree that compared to the tectonic ideological shift under way in Congress, McCorvey's spiritual journey probably has no more practical impact than any other individual with a change of heart. But as a personal story, her switch was greeted with intense curiosity, some praising or pitying her, many trying to understand.

According to Laguna Beach psychologist Ellen McGrath, McCorvey is not the first in a long line of people--from Communists to health addicts--who have made a seemingly puzzling switch from one extreme idea to another.

"What they may be doing is trying to resolve deep ambivalence. The quickest way to try and relieve exhaustion and resolve ambivalence is to embrace the other side. In this case, she'll find a strongly developed community, a strong community with very clear standards and beliefs that will openly embrace her.

"It's lonely to be a lightning rod," McGrath said. "In times of trouble and turbulence, people go to more extremes to find answers that provide safety and structure to resolve the ambivalence."

In a 1994 autobiography, "I Am Roe: My Life, Roe v. Wade and Freedom of Choice" (HarperCollins), McCorvey revealed that her grandmother was a prostitute-fortuneteller, her mother an alcoholic who divorced her Army private father when Norma was 13. Raised as a Jehovah's Witness, McCorvey ran away when she was 10; she eventually settled in Dallas and dropped out of school when she was 16. What followed were years of alcohol and drug abuse, pay-the-rent jobs as bartender, carnival barker or house cleaner. She suffered from severe depression. She had lovers of both sexes.

McCorvey had not articulated an ideology of her own when she was discovered and used "at random" by abortion rights leaders in the Roe vs. Wade case, said Los Angeles psychologist and attorney Rex Julian Beaber. (Wade was Henry Wade, then the Dallas County district attorney enforcing the Texas abortion laws.) As the plaintiff in the test case, she was ultimately unable to obtain the abortion she sought, and put her daughter up for adoption.

McCorvey came to serve as a symbol for one of the era's most compelling movements, but no more. "At some level, she had to know she was nothing more than a figurehead. And she had served her purpose," Beaber said.

On Thursday's "Nightline" program, McCorvey told interviewer Ted Koppel that the abortion rights leaders were Vassar-educated women who shunned her and thought she was "stupid." "They never gave me the respect I thought I deserved," she said.

"I don't think anyone did not not respect her," replied Kate Michelman, executive director of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League. "Whether she was satisfied that she had the role she wanted, that's a different issue. Maybe she was unhappy about not having a more prominent role."

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Skeptics observed that McCorvey seemed less than committed to her conversion because while she told Koppel that she was against abortion, she also said she still upheld a woman's right to choose abortion in the first trimester, particularly in cases where the fetus is deformed.

But some religious experts said they believe her conversion is sincere.

Stuart Wright, a sociologist specializing in religion at Lamar University in Beaumont, Tex., said that intellectual understanding almost always lags behind emotional rush in religious conversions.

"It's a powerful, emotional and psychological shift, and how that plays itself out in belief or doctrine or intellectually, certainly has to come along later. This was not an intellectual conversion," he said.

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