McCorvey, the plaintiff in the landmark Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade, died of heart failure Saturday in Katy, Texas at 69.
Out of the public eye until the early 1980s, she advocated for pro-abortion rights causes and began to talk to news media. But after two religious conversions, she became a fervent opponent of abortion rights, said Rebecca Kreitzer, a professor of public policy at UNC.
“She played an important role in that she was a rallying point and a significant figure for people on the right, but she was really vilified by those same people at earlier points in her life,” Kreitzer said.
Some historians think McCorvey might have condemned abortion in order to gain acceptance from conservatives, she said.
“Other people might say that’s a cynical take on what happened,” she said. “Some say she had a conversion, and that pro-life people in the movement were people who accepted her.”
Austin Anthis, a senior at Duke University who opposes abortion, said McCorvey’s story bridges the two movements.
“Her legacy can cause both sides to empathize with the other side,” he said. “So hers is a really unique story in a way but also representative of the complex issue of abortion in America.”
Lisa Levenstein, a history professor at UNC-Greensboro, said in an email that McCorvey’s story is not representative of most women who have legal abortions.
“The vast majority of people who have abortions do not regret them and remain pro-choice,” she said. “That doesn’t mean it’s an easy decision, but her situation definitely isn’t typical.”
Overall public opinion on legal abortion has remained relatively consistent since the 1960s, she said.
Kreitzer said a large majority of Americans support access to abortion in cases of protecting the life of the mother, rape or incest. But support dramatically decreases if motivations for the abortion are economic or due to preference.
“The reality is that far more women have abortions because of economic reasons than the number of women who have an abortion because of rape or incest,” she said. “But if you look at public opinion, (support for abortion) is very susceptible to the way you word the question.”
Anthis said he hopes the new administration will propose limits on abortion rights.
“Having a Republican majority in both houses of Congress and a Republican president gives me some hope,” he said. “But I’m not super confident about what President (Donald) Trump himself will do. It seems lower on his priority list, and he’s made pro-choice comments in the past.”
Levenstein said anti-abortion strategists have tried to circumvent Roe v. Wade to find alternative ways to restrict access to abortion.
“Legislative action undermining Roe began almost immediately after Roe passed in 1973,” Levenstein said. “In 1976, Congress passed the Hyde Amendment, which made it illegal to use federal monies to fund abortions. This meant that poor women who depended on Medicaid could not get their abortions paid for, essentially robbing them of the ‘right to choose.’”
It’s increasingly difficult to get an abortion in states like North Carolina, especially for women without financial resources, she said.
“States like (North Carolina) have also given government money to fund Crisis Pregnancy Centers, (which) are not staffed by medical personnel,” she said. “The people who work at CPCs try to convince pregnant women not to get abortions.”
Kreitzer said ultimately McCorvey was a complicated woman, and her prominence in both movements waxed and waned over time.
“I think she was more of a symbol to the pro-life movement than to the pro-choice movement,” she said. “I’m not sure she converted anybody to change their mind about any issues, but she rallied people around viewpoints they already had.”