Jane Roe was the pseudonym for the plaintiff in the well-known Roe v Wade case1 which liberalised abortion law in the USA in 1973. The case turned on a woman’s constitutional right to privacy which had long been held to protect intimate and personal decisions from government interference. What is often not realised is that at no point in her life did ‘Jane Roe’ ever have an abortion. She was a woman lifted by chance into a national spotlight she never sought and tried to avoid for years. The real Jane Roe, Norma McCorvey, died on 18 February 2017 aged 69.
Norma was the ninth child of a poor family living in rural Louisiana. She was neglected by her parents and exhibited disturbed behaviour in childhood. Norma was made a ward of court and institutionalised. At 16 she had left school and was working as a waitress when she met and married a sheet-metal worker, Woody McCorvey. She suffered violence at his hands, before and after she became pregnant. She left him and gave birth to a daughter, Melissa, in 1965. She began drinking heavily and came out as a lesbian. She was deceived into signing adoption papers for Melissa by her mother; her mother raised Melissa.
At the age of 18, having been working in a series of mundane jobs, Norma had a second child whom she gave up for adoption. Norma was aged 22 and pregnant for the third time when in 1969 she sought an abortion, then illegal under Texan law except when necessary to save a woman’s life. After first claiming she had been gang-raped, thinking that this might get her a legal abortion, and seeking an illegal one as well, she visited the Dallas lawyers Sarah Weddington and Linda Coffee. She was already 20 weeks’ pregnant. They wished to challenge the law which they knew would take time; McCorvey wanted an abortion urgently. She later claimed she had signed the affidavit without reading it and did not understanding what the case would entail. The case was filed against the Dallas County District Attorney, Henry Wade.
McCorvey’s baby had been born, given up for adoption and was 2½-years-old by the time the Supreme Court made its ruling. The decision, by a 7–2 majority, came on 22 January 1973. Justice Harry Blackmun’s opinion gave women the right to choose, while protecting the state’s interest in protecting the fetus in the later stages of pregnancy. Roe v Wade, and a companion ruling in a Georgia case, Doe v Bolton, nullified restrictive laws in 46 US states. The landmark decision marked a milestone in women’s reproductive rights.
Some years later, McCorvey stepped into the public eye, becoming a prominent voice for the pro-choice movement from the 1980s to the mid-1990s. Admitting in the media that her story of impregnation through gang rape was a lie (though that played no part in the case that went to court), she was pilloried by those on both the left and right. Working at a Dallas women’s clinic during a period when violence was not uncommon at abortion clinics, she was faced with verbal abuse from protesters daily.
McCorvey never managed to escape from poverty. She became increasingly embittered towards the feminist movement whose leaders were much wealthier and better educated than her. By the time her autobiography, I Am Roe, written with Andy Meisner, was published in 1994, McCorvey had become a born-again Christian. She was baptised by the head of Operation Rescue whose headquarters had moved to the same block as the clinic she worked at. She began campaigning vigorously against abortion, claiming she had been a pawn of her Roe v Wade lawyers. Later she converted to Catholicism.
Testifying before the Senate in 1998, she said “I am dedicated to spending the rest of my life undoing the law that bears my name”. She petitioned the Supreme Court to overturn the Roe v Wade decision, but it rejected her appeal. She protested when Barack Obama spoke at the Roman Catholic University of Notre Dame in 2009, and was arrested at Senate hearings while protesting against the appointment of the pro-choice Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court.
Sam Rowlands, Visiting Professor, Bournemouth University, Bournemouth, UK
1 Roe v Wade 410 US 113 (1973).