When Flip Benham opened an office of his antiabortion group next door to an abortion clinic that employed Norma McCorvey, the two saw each other through the cliches of their respective ideologies.
McCorvey, also known as âJane Roeâ of Roe v. Wade, saw Benhamâs group as âvicious, mean-spirited, fire-breathing, sanctimonious, self-righteous, bigoted hypocrites,â she would later write.
Benham, a minister, told the New York Times that he was setting up shop âat the gates of hell.â
Those âhypocritesâ had already driven an abortion doctor out of Dallas and shut down another clinic in the city. And what Benham called the âgates of hellâ was the employer ofÂ the woman better known by the pseudonym she used in the Supreme Court case that made abortion legal.
Almost no one expected McCorvey and Benham to stay neighbors long.
Absolutely no one expected that before 1995 was over, they would call each other friends.
Nor that their meeting would lead McCorvey to spend the rest of her life â which ended Saturday â as an opponent of the movement she once symbolized.
A high school dropout whose Supreme Court victory came too late for her to have theÂ abortion she wanted, McCorvey was working as a marketing director at A Choice for Women in north Dallas that spring.
After years of semi-anonymity, she had just released a book called âI Am Roe,â and was somewhat awkwardly assuming the role of a public figure.
Like most in Dallasâs antiabortion circles, she knew Benham and his group, Operation Rescue, by infamy. Operation Rescue had protested a nearby clinic every day for six years â until the clinic shut down.
The group relocated its headquarters to the suiteÂ beside A Choice for Women, in March 1995. âThe Lord has given us this place right next door where theyâre killing little boys and girls,â Benham told the Dallas Morning News on move-in day.
McCorvey phoned police twice before noon.
From Day One, the groupsâ shared parking lot became a mob of protesters and reporters. McCorvey and Benham stood in the thick of it, giving competing interviews and sizing each other up.
âAre you still killing babies, Miss Norma?â the ministerÂ asked her in the parking lot, McCorvey wrote in her second book, âWon By Love.â
âLighten up,â she replied. âWhat you need is to go to a good Beach Boys concert.â
âMiss Norma, I havenât been to a Beach Boys concert since 1976,â Benham said.
Their previous interactions had been few, brief and hostile, McCorvey wrote. BenhamÂ had called her a baby killer at her book signing. She once left him drunken taunts on his answering machine.
But with that brief conversation â about the Beach Boys, no less â âFlip became more human to me,â she wrote.
Accounts of their early friendship diverge somewhat. Benham would later tell Vanity FairÂ that McCorvey immediately began dropping by his office to âask us to pray for her.â
McCorvey described a more reluctant courtship, but agreed that the ministerâsÂ humility disarmed her.
She recalled the weekend after Benham moved in. Saturdays were always big protest days, she wrote, and McCorvey was dreading the first one with Operation Rescue next door.
As McCorvey stood outside smoking, she wrote, Benham sat down beside her. He apologized for calling her names:Â âI saw my words drop into your heart, and I know they hurt you deeply.â
McCorvey was taken aback. She excused herself, went inside and cried, she wrote.
The office block settled into a bizarre pattern: regular police calls and noisy protests in the parking lot, coupled with nascentÂ friendships between employees in oppositeÂ offices.
âThe war in front of our clinic became a war of love and hatred,â McCorvey wrote in her book.
About a month after Operation Rescue moved in, county constables raided it. The antiabortion group owed more than $1 million to Planned Parenthood after losing a lawsuit for disrupting clinics in another city.
The authorities took everything in lieu of payment. Workers âwere forced to stand in the chairless office â¦ and change babiesâ diapers on the floor,â the Morning News reported.
McCorvey recalled walking next door to find her rivals in âbarely contained panic.â
âI am so, so sorry,â she said.
McCorveyÂ lent her neighborsÂ a fax machine.
So it went.Â In private, after hours, Benham would share Bible passages with McCorvey, she wrote.
She, in turn, would explain the complicated mix of religions and mystical philosophies she believed in.
Her anger at Benham would return whenever she watched him give aÂ bombastic interview. When she first took Benham up on a challenge to go to church, she was put off by a sermon against homosexuals â McCorvey had long identified as a lesbian.
Still, she wrote, âI envied them for what they had.â
One day, she wrote, after the doctor and other employees had left the clinic, she climbed onto the operation table.
A symbol to the abortion movement for 20 years, she had never had the procedure herself. The Supreme Court ruling came too late for her. The two children she bore out of wedlock were given up for adoption.
âI put my feet into the stirrups and lay there for some time,â McCorvey wrote in her book.
On a particularly bad Saturday morning, more than 50 protesters crowded the clinic parking lot.
The protests were more than annoyances. It had been just a few months since the last AmericanÂ abortion worker was murdered, and Jane Roe herself was as good a target as any.
âI was terrified,â McCorvey wrote. âAnd then, almost like an angel, Flip walked out.â
With a few quiet words to the protest leader, the ministerÂ cleared the entire parking lot.
When everyone was gone, he walked over and told her a story.
âYou know, Miss Norma, I used to be pro-choice,â Benham said, she wrote. âWhen my wife found out she was pregnant with our twins, I told her to have an abortion.â
The confession astounded McCorvey: âIf Flip was supposed to be my archenemy, why was he giving me information that could prove damaging to his reputation?â
In fact, the ministerÂ had told the same story to the Morning News a year earlier, for a profile in the newspaper. But McCorvey wrote that she went home and consulted Tarot cards for the meaning of it all.
Before long, she began to imagine infantsâ laughter as she worked in the clinic.
âSomething inside me had changed,â she wrote.
In August of 1995, McCorvey was invited to church by an Operation Rescue worker â a woman whose young children she had sometimes watched. She did not know many in the congregation, she wrote, but many seemed to know her before the pastor spoke.
âI canât really recall much of what he shared,â McCorvey wrote, âbut each word began to open the window in my heart just a little farther.â
After the service, she accompaniedÂ the congregants to a house outside Dallas, to a backyard swimming pool, where she was baptized.
The event had been publicized in advance, but still took the countryÂ by surprise.
âWell, as I understand it, sheâs gone through a number of changes in her life and had a serious religious conversion and believes that abortion is wrong now,â President Bill Clinton said the next day.
McCorvey and Benham explained theÂ conversion in their own chosenÂ words.
âJesus Christ has reached through the abortion-mill wall and touched the heart of Norma McCorvey,â Benham told the Morning News.
âI think I have always been pro-life,â McCorvey told a local radio station. âI just didnât know it.â
In years to come, she would become as much a symbol to the antiabortion movement as she had been to abortion rights supporters.
Which is to say, a sometimesÂ awkward one.
âDo not vote for Barack Obama,â McCorvey said against a backdrop of images of aborted fetuses, according to Vanity Fair. âHe murders babies.â
Some were suspicious that her religious conversion was planned for publicity. After she abandoned them, abortion advocates painted McCorvey as an attention-starved figurehead.
Even Benham â years later â told Vanity Fair âshe just fishes for money.â
But on the day after her baptism, with a new religion and a new friend, âJane Roeâ didnât seem interested in publicity.
âThere will be no more public appearances from me,â herÂ answering machine said when the Morning News phoned. âI am going to be regular person Norma McCorvey.â