Jane Roe of Roe v. Wade de­ci­sion

Her un­wanted preg­nancy led to land­mark abor­tion rights court rul­ing

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY EMILY LANGER

Norma McCorvey, who was 22, un­wed, mired in ad­dic­tion and poverty, and des­per­ate for a way out of an un­wanted preg­nancy when she be­came Jane Roe, the pseudony­mous plain­tiff in the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court de­ci­sion that es­tab­lished a con­sti­tu­tional right to an abor­tion, died Feb. 18 at an as­sisted-liv­ing fa­cil­ity in Katy, Tex. She was 69.

Her death was con­firmed by Joshua Prager, a jour­nal­ist work­ing on a book about Roe v. Wade. The cause was a heart ail­ment.

Ms. McCorvey was a com­pli­cated pro­tag­o­nist in a le­gal case that be­came a touch­stone in the cul­ture wars, cel­e­brated by cham­pi­ons as an af­fir­ma­tion of women’s free­dom and de­nounced by op­po­nents as the na­tion­wide le­gal­iza­tion of mur­der of the un­born.

When she filed suit in 1970, she was look­ing not for a sweep­ing rul­ing for all women from the high­est court in the land, but rather, sim­ply, the right to legally and safely end a preg­nancy that she did not wish to carry for­ward. In her home state of Texas, as in most other states, abor­tion was pro­hib­ited ex­cept when the mother’s life was at stake.

On Jan. 22, 1973, the Supreme Court handed down its his­toric 7-to-2 rul­ing, writ­ten by Jus­tice Harry A. Black­mun, ar­tic­u­lat­ing a con­sti­tu­tional right to pri­vacy that in­cluded

I worked in abor­tion clin­ics, “try­ing to please every­one and try­ing to be hard­core pro-choice. That is a very heavy bur­den.” Norma McCorvey told Time magazine

the choice to ter­mi­nate a preg­nancy.

The rul­ing es­tab­lished the trimester frame­work, de­signed to bal­ance a woman’s right to con­trol her body and a state’s com­pelling in­ter­est in pro­tect­ing un­born life. Al­though later mod­i­fied, it was a land­mark of Amer­i­can ju­rispru­dence and made Jane Roe a fig­ure­head — cham­pi­oned or re­viled — in the bat­tle over re­pro­duc­tive rights that con­tin­ued into the 21st cen­tury.

Ms. McCorvey fully shed her court­room pseu­do­nym in the 1980s, lend­ing her name first to sup­port­ers of abor­tion rights and then, in a stun­ning re­ver­sal, to the cause’s fiercest crit­ics as a born-again Chris­tian. But even af­ter two mem­oirs, she re­mained an enigma, as dif­fi­cult to know as when she shielded her iden­tity be­hind the name Jane Roe.

She ad­mit­ted that she ped­dled mis­in­for­ma­tion about her­self, ly­ing about even the most cru­cial junc­ture in her life: For years, she claimed that the Roe preg­nancy was the re­sult of a rape. In 1987, she re­canted, say­ing that she had be­come preg­nant “through what I thought was love.” Al­though the de­tails of her ac­count were legally unim­por­tant, abor­tion foes pointed to the lie to dis­credit Ms. McCorvey and her case.

Ac­cord­ing to the most sym­pa­thetic tellings of her story, she was a vic­tim of abuse, fi­nan­cial hard­ship, drug and al­co­hol ad­dic­tion, and per­sonal frailty. For much of her life, she sub­sisted at the mar­gins of so­ci­ety, mak­ing ends meet, ac­cord­ing to var­i­ous ac­counts, as a bar­tender, a maid, a roller-skat­ing carhop and a house painter. She found a mea­sure of sta­bil­ity with a les­bian part­ner, Con­nie Gon­za­lez, but even that re­la­tion­ship re­port­edly ended in bit­ter­ness af­ter 35 years.

Harsher judg­ments pre­sented Ms. McCorvey as a user who trolled for at­ten­tion and cash. Abor­tion rights ac­tivists ques­tioned her mo­tives when she de­camped in 1995, af­ter years on their side, and was bap­tized in a swimming pool by the evan­gel­i­cal min­is­ter at the helm of the an­tiabor­tion group Op­er­a­tion Res­cue.

The min­is­ter, Flip Ben­ham, told Prager, who pro­filed Ms. McCorvey in Vanity Fair magazine in 2013, that he had come to see her as some­one who “just fishes for money.”

By her own de­scrip­tion, she was “a sim­ple woman with a ninth-grade ed­u­ca­tion.” She pre­sented her­self as the vic­tim of her at­tor­neys, Linda Cof­fee and Sarah Wed­ding­ton, whom she ac­cused of ex­ploit­ing the predica­ment of her un­wanted preg­nancy to score a vic­tory for the abor­tion rights cause.

Roe v. Wade, which be­came a class-ac­tion suit, was a wa­ter­shed for women in gen­eral but ir­rel­e­vant for Ms. McCorvey in par­tic­u­lar. Af­ter an ini­tial court vic­tory for her, Texas mounted an ap­peal that dragged on long past Ms. McCorvey’s due date. By the time the Supreme Court an­nounced its de­ci­sion, her baby was 2½ years old. She had given the child up for adop­tion and learned of the rul­ing in a news­pa­per ar­ti­cle.

A dif­fi­cult start

Norma Nel­son — her mid­dle name was var­i­ously spelled Lea, Leah and Leigh — was born in Simme­s­port, La., on Sept. 22, 1947. Her fa­ther, a tele­vi­sion re­pair­man, was largely ab­sent from her life.

She grew up in Texas, spend­ing part of her ado­les­cence in a Catholic board­ing school and at a reform school for delin­quents. Her mother told Prager that she beat her daugh­ter in fits of rage over the “wild” be­hav­ior that in­cluded sex­ual promis­cu­ity with men and women.

In her teens, Norma be­gan a short-lived mar­riage to a sheet­metal worker, El­wood “Woody” McCorvey. Her mother raised their daugh­ter, Melissa. Ms. McCorvey’s sec­ond baby, born out of wed­lock, was adopted by an­other fam­ily.

She said she be­came preg­nant with the Roe baby dur­ing a re­la­tion­ship in Dal­las. An adop­tion lawyer re­ferred her to Cof­fee who, like Wed­ding­ton, was a re­cent law school grad­u­ate seek­ing a plain­tiff to test the con­sti­tu­tion­al­ity of the Texas abor­tion law.

At the time, many well-to-do women seek­ing abor­tions trav­eled to states or coun­tries where the pro­ce­dure was le­gal or eas­ily avail­able, ac­cord­ing to Les­lie J. Rea­gan, a his­to­rian and the au­thor of the vol­ume “When Abor­tion Was a Crime: Women, Medicine, and Law in the United States, 1867-1973.”

Women like Ms. McCorvey, who did not have money to travel, had sev­eral un­de­sir­able op­tions. They could en­trust them­selves to abor­tion providers who were not med­i­cal pro­fes­sion­als or at­tempt to per­form abor­tions on them­selves — de­ci­sions that fre­quently re­sulted in in­fec­tion or death — or they could ob­tain no abor­tion at all.

Ms. McCorvey was not the first plain­tiff to chal­lenge a state abor­tion law, but Roe v. Wade was the first such case to work its way through the ap­peals process to the Supreme Court. She used the pseu­do­nym Jane Roe to pro­tect her pri­vacy. The defendant, Wade, was the Dal­las County dis­trict at­tor­ney, Henry Wade, an of­fi­cial re­spon­si­ble for en­forc­ing Texas abor­tion laws.

Years later, Ms. McCorvey ex­pressed bit­ter­ness at what she de­scribed as her at­tor­neys’ un­will­ing­ness to help her find what she needed — an abor­tion, even an il­le­gal one.

“Sarah sat right across the ta­ble from me at Columbo’s pizza par­lor, and I didn’t know un­til two years ago that she had had an abor­tion her­self,” Ms. McCorvey told the New York Times in 1994. “When I told her then how des­per­ately I needed one, she could have told me where to go for it. But she wouldn’t be­cause she needed me to be preg­nant for her case.”

“Sarah saw these cuts on my wrists, my swollen eyes from cry­ing,” she con­tin­ued, “the mis­er­able per­son sit­ting across from her, and she knew she had a patsy. She knew I wouldn’t go out­side of the realm of her and Linda. I was too scared. It was one of the most hideous times of my life.”

‘I wasn’t good enough’

Af­ter the Supreme Court rul­ing, Ms. McCorvey did not live in to­tal anonymity, as has been er­ro­neously re­ported, but lived a mainly pri­vate ex­is­tence be­fore re­veal­ing her­self in in­ter­views and then in a mem­oir writ­ten with Andy Meisler, “I Am Roe” (1994). She worked in abor­tion clin­ics, “try­ing to please every­one and try­ing to be hard­core pro­choice,” she told Time magazine.

“That is a very heavy bur­den,” she said. More­over, she said that her so­cial back­ground as a poor high school dropout made her ill at ease among the largely up­per­class and well-ed­u­cated ac­tivists who helped make abor­tion a mat­ter of ur­gent na­tional im­por­tance in the 1960s and 1970s.

“I wasn’t good enough for them,” she once said. “. . . I’m a street kid.”

Her con­ver­sion came about when Ben­ham, the head of Op­er­a­tion Res­cue, opened an of­fice near one of Ms. McCorvey’s clin­ics and be­friended her. She an­nounced that she op­posed abor­tion rights ex­cept in the first trimester — a po­si­tion that put her in fun­da­men­tal con­flict with other an­tiabor­tion ac­tivists who op­posed abor­tion in all cir­cum­stances. Nev­er­the­less, her de­fec­tion was hailed as a vic­tory for their cause.

Wed­ding­ton looked sus­pi­ciously on Ms. McCorvey’s con­ver­sion and once de­scribed her for­mer client as a per­son who “re­ally craved and sought at­ten­tion.” Ms. McCorvey at­trib­uted her philo­soph­i­cal re­ver­sal to her be­ing “wor­ried about sal­va­tion.”

She wrote an­other mem­oir, “Won By Love” (1997), with coau­thor Gary Thomas, founded the Dal­las-based Roe No More min­istry and re­port­edly be­came a Catholic. She par­tic­i­pated in an­tiabor­tion protests and was ar­rested in 2009 for dis­rupt­ing the Se­nate con­fir­ma­tion hear­ings on So­nia So­tomayor’s nom­i­na­tion to the Supreme Court.

Glo­ria Allred, the women’s rights lawyer who for a pe­riod rep­re­sented Ms. McCorvey, told the Times in 1995 that Ms. McCorvey was jus­ti­fied in feel­ing aban­doned by the women’s move­ment.

“She was shut out of many na­tional pro-choice cel­e­bra­tions. She at­tended but for the most part she was not in­vited and it was a very hurt­ful ex­pe­ri­ence,” Allred said. “When she did speak . . . she was re­ally very elo­quent, not well-ed­u­cated but speak­ing from the heart, and I think she had a lot of com­mon sense in what she was say­ing about choice.”

But nei­ther did Ms. McCorvey find a com­fort­able home among con­ser­va­tives in the an­tiabor­tion move­ment, many of whom re­garded les­bian­ism as im­moral.

“Nei­ther side was ever will­ing to ac­cept her for who she was,” the his­to­rian David J. Gar­row, a Pulitzer Prize-win­ning bi­og­ra­pher and the au­thor of “Lib­erty and Sex­u­al­ity: The Right to Pri­vacy and the Mak­ing of Roe v. Wade,” said in an in­ter­view.

Ms. McCorvey sup­ported her­self in part through hon­o­raria, book roy­al­ties and other in­come she gen­er­ated from her role in the abor­tion de­bate. By 2013, ac­cord­ing to Prager’s ar­ti­cle in Vanity Fair, Ms. McCorvey was re­ly­ing on “free room and board from strangers.”

Sur­vivors in­clude her daugh­ter Melissa and two grand­chil­dren. Noth­ing is pub­licly known of the two chil­dren Ms. McCorvey gave up for adop­tion, ac­cord­ing to Prager.

“I don’t re­quire that much in my life,” Ms. McCorvey told the Times in 1994. “. . . I just never had the priv­i­lege to go into an abor­tion clinic, lay down and have an abor­tion. That’s the only thing I never had.”


Norma McCorvey sued in 1970 be­cause her home state of Texas pro­hib­ited abor­tion in most cases.


Norma McCorvey, Jane Roe in the 1973 court case, left, and her at­tor­ney Glo­ria Allred hold hands as they leave the Supreme Court build­ing in Wash­ing­ton af­ter sit­ting in while the court lis­tened to ar­gu­ments in a Mis­souri abor­tion case in 1989.


Norma McCorvey, left and the Rev. Rob Schenck dur­ing a na­tional memorial for the pre-born and their moth­ers and fathers in 1999.

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