The Jane Roe in Roe v. Wade became an unlikely pro-choice hero -- then an unlikely pro-life hero.
Norma McCorvey is best known as the Jane Roe in Roe v. Wade. She died February 18, 2017.
I met Norma mid-way through her journey, in the mid-1980s. She had just recently come out as the anonymous plaintiff -- the Jane Roe in Roe v. Wade. She would undergo a number of transformations in her life. She started as a pro-choice hero but came to feel taken advantage of by the movement. She joined the pro-life side, and was put forward as a poster child for religious and political conversion. But it was an awkward fit as she had also come out as a lesbian, and had some misgivings about the pro-life position too.
In the court case, she was listed as a rape victim but later said that was a story concocted because she was embarrassed by the real story (of getting pregnant unintentionally). She was baptized as an evangelical Protestant but later became Catholic.
In the conversations I had with her over the years I came to think of her as a pugnacious, good-hearted woman who got swept up in history, regularly engaging with people along the way who wanted to both exploit and help her. She did the best she could trying to navigate that path, figuring out what was right in her own mind. On balance, I think she did pretty damn well.
I wrote two pieces about her earlier in my career:
"Roe v. Roe"
Newsweek, August 21, 1995
Norma McCorvey was a pro-choice poster girl--until she took up with Operation Rescue. She tells NEWSWEEK she's been tormented by the issue for years, and she hasn't `changed sides all the way.'
ON JUNE 22, NORMA MCCorvey awoke in the middle of the night and felt a spiritual presence. She tried to shake it off by getting a Coke. But when she sat down in the dining room, she fell the spirit pushing down on her, almost shoving her to the table. The presence, she concluded, was Evil. "I denounce you, Satan," she found herself declaring. "The Lord Jesus Christ is sitting right here. I banish you from my house." The relief was immediate. She slept until 11 the next morning.
Now, she says, maybe Satan will stop bothering her. With cameras clicking, McCorvey, known to most as the Jane Roe of Roe v. Wade, was baptized by Flip Benham, the flamboyant national director of Operation Rescue, the militant anti-abortion group. Around the country, pro-life leaders hailed the historic moment: the symbol of abortion rights had defected. Anchors on the "700 Club" TV show led their viewers in thankful prayer. "The poster child has jumped off the poster," said Bill Price, the head of the Dallas-based Texans United for Life.
But McCorvey's conversion is not quite what her new friends think it is. "I haven't changed sides all the way," she told NEWSWEEK in lengthy interviews last week. Although outraged by abortions performed late in pregnancy, she believes that they should be legal in the first three months, a view fundamentally at odds with Operation Rescue doctrine. In the end, she will probably fit no more comfortably with right-to-life activists than she did with the pro-choice side. "This is not pro-choice," she says of her philosophy. "It is not pro-life. It is pro-Norma."
McCorvey has for years been tormented, both by her decision to seek an abortion in 1969 and by her special role in history. She has alternately craved anonymity and attention. She has used the abortion issue to craft an identity far grander than she could have imagined, and she in turn has been used--by pro-choice advocates, the media, Hollywood and now the right-to-life movement. Her personal journey has been painful and messy. In other words, she truly is a symbol of the abortion issue.
When lawyers Sarah Weddington and Linda Coffee asked her in 1969 to become the plaintiff in their class-action suit, McCorvey had to confront a breathtaking paradox: to help win the right for abortion, she couldn't have one. (If she weren't pregnant, she'd have no legal standing to demand an abortion.) So McCorvey carried the pregnancy to term. A hospital nurse, not realizing that McCorvey intended to place the baby for adoption, handed it to her. McCorvey held the daughter she had tried to abort. From that day, she felt conflicted about abortion. "I got to thinking, `Is it true what people are saying that abortion is killing babies? Is it true?'" She remained anonymous in part because she felt so guilty. Her mother, virulently anti-abortion, kept asking how she could sleep at night, knowing she'd been "murdering little babies." McCorvey would drink herself to sleep, she says, only to be haunted by nightmares of live infants being carved up in front of her.
Starting around 1984, a decade after the Supreme Court decision, she began slowly to acknowledge that she was Jane Roe. She gave a few interviews about the case, even claiming she'd been impregnated during a gang rape. Her picture began appearing in newspapers and she was surprised at how supportive people were once she got outside Dallas. She began to feel comfortable with what she'd done. She concluded that a woman should have the right to an abortion -- not so much because of the abstract principle of choice but because she thought there were too many unwanted children in the world. "I thought about these poor children who I've personally seen parked in front of just dives "hungry, dirty, neglected and abused. If these people don't want these children, why do they have them?"
Being Jane Roe gave McCorvey a sense of importance. Her life, by her account, was not amounting to much: a runaway, thief, alcoholic and drug addict, she'd already had two other kids. She dropped out of school in ninth grade and was drifting from state to state. Now she was part of history. She began referring to the Roe v. Wade case as "my law." She became a celebrity in pro-choice circles, getting standing ovations when she spoke on college campuses. (She wasn't a savvy political polemicist, confusing "the donkeys and the elephants" and mixing up actor Carroll O'Connor and Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.) McCorvey was thrilled when Hollywood producers bought the rights to her life story: she was going to be played by Holly Hunter.
But the attention made her heartsick, too. There were things about her that people didn't know; things that might disgust them. She had not, in fact, been raped. She had made up that story to get sympathy and increase the odds of getting an abortion. She'd been in reform school three times. And she was a lesbian.
By 1989, she had gone public with these secrets. Emotionally unburdened, she felt ready to take an even more active role in the pro-choice movement. But some mainstream leaders didn't want her. Irreverent, uneducated and hot-tempered, she hardly fit in with the polished, Ivy League leadership. In 1989, for example, she was prevented from speaking at a major Washington march commemorating the Roe v. Wade decision. She was "just some anonymous person who suddenly emerges," said Sheri O'Dell of the National Organization for Women. Considering that her house and car had recently been hit by gunfire, McCorvey couldn't believe she was not considered a genuine feminist.
Still, she remained avidly pro-choice, and in 1991 decided to put herself on the front lines, taking a job at a Dallas abortion clinic. While she felt good about helping women, she was sickened by some of what she saw. "Have you ever seen a second-trimester abortion? It's a baby. It's got a face and a body, and they put him in a freezer and a little container." Soon after, she says, she left that clinic to work at another one called A Choice for Women.
On March 31, 1995, Operation Rescue moved in next door. "Oy vay!" McCorvey declared with a Texas twang. Thursday through Saturday, when the clinic offered abortion services, Operation Rescue volunteers would shout "Baby killer!" and other bits of "sidewalk counseling" at women patients. McCorvey fought back with characteristic pugnacity. She called the cops. She spat in a pro-lifer's face.
Yet on other days, a strange detente developed. To McCorvey, the anti-abortion activists seemed polite, warm and endearing. She took a liking to Flip Benham, the blow-dried minister who ran the operation. They sat on a nearby bench and chatted; she enjoyed hearing about his life before he found God, when he'd been a heavy boozer and carouser. She called Benham "Flipper"; he called her "Miss Norma." She was spiritually open-minded, having been at various times influenced by Jehovah's witness, Roman Catholicism, New Age teachings and the occult. Benham shared wit her passages from the Bible, going to church regularly. A few weeks ago she told the youth minister she wanted to be baptized. Last Tuesday she and Benham went to a friend's house nearby. He submerged her head in a pool and declared, "I baptize you in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit."
The reaction from pro-choice leaders seemed to validate McCorvey's suspicions about their elitism. "All Jane Roe did was sign a one-page affidavit," Sarah Weddington told NEWSWEEK. "She was pregnant and didn't want to be. That was her total involvement in the case." In fact, Weddington said, if she had it to do over again she wouldn't use McCorvey as the plaintiff: "I'm sorry I went to Dallas."
McCorvey believes the pro-life movement won't treat her as badly. "I won't let 'em," she says, "I've already been exploited enough to last me a life-time." But Operation Rescue officials are already having trouble accepting her as she is. When she went off script by saying she favored first-trimester abortion rights, spokeswoman Ronda Mackey said, "Her theology isn't straight yet. She's like a new infant; a new baby doesn't understand about the world around it." And when asked about McCorvey's longtime homosexual relationship, Benham implied that this problem would be solved in due time. "You just watch what God does in her life as she follows him."
Not likely. She has been in a relationship with, the same woman, Connie Gonzales, for 26 years. "I might walk away from Jesus before I'd walk away from Connie," McCorvey says. And it's hard to see the foulmouthed McCorvey getting comfortable with the born-again lingo. "Lord Jesus Christ this, and Lord Jesus Christ that," she says. "After a while, I just get a little tired of hearing about it."
Few people have been forced to confront the moral dimensions of their behavior as Norma McCorvey has. "I was worried about salvation. I can now go to sleep at night knowing that I'm not going to be responsible for a second-trimester abortion." Still, she says, "I believe in the woman's right to choose. I'm like a lot of people. I'm in the mushy middle."
Meeting the Baby She Was Supposed to Put Up for Adoption
This was a piece I did for States News Service in January 21, 1985. In this version, she is still claiming she was raped and she is still pro-choice. To me the most moving moment was her describing what it was like when the nurse accidentally gave her the baby. She had wanted to abort the baby but one of the ironies of the case was that by agreeing to be the plaintiff in an abortion case she would not be allowed to have an abortion, because that would "moot" out her cause of action. She carried the baby to term and decided to put it up for adoption.
Norma McCorvey was brutally dragged into history on a Georgia road in 1969. At age 21, already the mother of a baby girl, she was raped by three men after getting off work at a nearby carnival. She became pregnant and did not want to keep a child conceived in a rape.
Her personal tragedy set into motion a series of court cases culminating in the Supreme Court decision -- 12 years ago tomorrow -- that legalized abortion throughout the United States. The decision was Roe vs. Wade and McCorvey, now 37, a Dallas house painter, was Jane Roe. Wade was Henry Wade, a state official in Texas, where abortion was illegal at the time.
McCorvey has always been bothered by the bitterness of the abortion controversy, but she says she now fears that lives may be lost because of the recent anti-abortion violence.
"If I had to do it all over again, I would, even with the bombings. It just scares me for my sisters," McCorvey says in her slow Texas drawl.
Twenty-seven abortion clinics were bombed or torched in 1984, according to Planned Parenthood Federation of America. Six of the bombings were in Texas.
"It's like I was telling one of the [clinic] directors the other day, 'My heart goes out to you. I don't know if I could walk in here every morning and carry out a normal business day knowing some crackpot is going to call up and say, 'You've got five minutes to get out of the building.'"
"I have been keeping track of everything that's been going on here in Dallas and around the state and it is just really looking bad for us," she says. "In the morning when I wake up, I just know they're going to say something about one of our local clinics. But fortunately they haven't yet."
Norma McCorvey became Jane Roe to protect herself and her family. Jane Roe soon became an abstract legal concept, the woman who wanted an abortion, an italicized title on a court docket, Roe v. Wade.
But she could not put her pregnancy on hold while the judicial system mulled over theses complex issues. In June 1970, the woman whose case resulted in legalized abortions gave birth to a girl. And in a cruel irony of history the baby she had wanted to abort was placed in her arms. The nurse on duty had not seen the notation that the baby was to be put up for adoption.
"They brought the child to me, and once they discovered they had messed up they immediately came and took the baby right out of my arms," McCorvey recalls. "I can't begin to tell you how that made me feel. I just got out of bed like you wouldn't believe and I grabbed her and I said, 'Hey, wait a minute, that's my kid.'" McCorvey said in a cathartic interview last year with Fred Friendly, a Columbia University professor and author of a book on the Constitution that includes a chapter on her case. She held the child for a moment before giving the infant girl back to the nurse."
"I got to thinking, 'Is it true what people are saying that abortion is killing babies? Is it true?" Then, I thought about all these poor children who I've personally seen parked in front of just dives -- hungry, dirty, neglected and abused. Their families were inside boozing it up. Why should these children be subject to this kind of abuse? If these people don't want these children, why do they have them? And I thought I did the right thing, because there for a long time I had my doubts."
Although the case of Jane Roe fueled more than a decade of bitter emotional political debate, Norma McCorvey, known as Pixie to her friends, has hardly a political bone in her slight body.
She gets confused between "the donkeys and elephants" that symbolize the political parties, mixes up actor Carroll O'Connor and Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and concedes she doesn't know the identity of the vice president except that "him and Geraldine had the debate."
What she had were her own feelings about what she wanted, and her first instinct was to get the abortion. But "the doctor told me that abortions were illegal in the state of Texas and if I wanted an abortion I'd have to go out of state. I didn't even at the time know where to start looking for another state. That's why I decided I wanted to put it up for adoption."
As it happened, the lawyer she approached for help with the adoption asked "rude" questions about the rape, and "I just didn't like his attitude." Son "just a whim" she got another lawyer, who introduced her to Sarah Weddington and Linda Coffee, two recent graduates of the University of Texas law school, who persuaded her to bring her case to court.
Sitting with Weddington and Coffee at Columbo's pizzeria on Mockingbird Lane in Dallas, McCorvey became as angry as her amiable disposition would let her.
"Isn't that rude that we can't have control over our bodies? I mean these bodies are our own, aren't they?" she recalls asking Weddington with mild indignation. "She said, 'Well, yes, they are.' And so I said, 'Why cant we choose what to do with them?'"
Weddington said in a recent interview that they thought McCorvey would be a strong test case because she was unmarried, young and a rape victim.
But when Weddington suggested they take the case to the Supreme Court McCorvey though she meant the courthouse downtown in Dallas. "I thought sh'ed go over to the federal building and give them hell and get a law passed," McCorvey remembers. "I wasn't all that political minded, I'm really not still. But when she said Supreme Court it never really occurred to me that she meant the United States Supreme Court."
Friendly, who produces television seminars on the Constitution, brought McCorvey to a class on the Constitution he teachers at Columbia last February. He said that even though she wasn't a powerful or well-educated person, McCorvey "put flesh and bone on the Constitution."
"It was important because that small person, caused to be pregnancy by a rape, was able to communicate the life of the Constitution," Friendly said.
[Side note: the way I met Norma was that my college friend Julius Genachowski was working for Friendly. He tracked down Norma as part of the book project, and Julius and I were responsible for taking care of her while she visited Columbia University].
Weddington agreed that while McCorvey hans't achieved success by society's usual standards, she had done much more. "To look at what she did in trying to help other women and see that others would not have to go through what she did, she has certainly made a contribution to countless of thousands," Weddington said.
Although McCorvey has been in the center of the abortion controversy, neither she nor her 19-year-old daughter has received any personal threats. She says with pride that "we're very private people, we keep to ourselves most of the time and we kind of like that."
But she watches the abortion issue closely and she does not like what she sees. "It saddens me to think [opponents of abortion] would stoop to such tactics as sending dirty letters saying that if they don't repent they'll have to answer to the living God.
"I've always thought God was alive and I don't think God would want his name all over the place for something like that." And McCorvey, whose mother is Roman Catholic and father a Jehovah's Witness, criticizes New York Archbishop John J. O'Connor for his treatment of Geraldine Ferraro.
"I think it was tacky of the archbishop not to even invite her to that party," she says, referring to the Al Smith campaign dinner. "I think he ought to be slapped on the hand and someone step on his big toe." [The event, attended by President Ronald Regan, caused controversy when the dinner committee, with the archbishop not voting, refused to let Ferraro fill in for candidate Walter Mondale.]
McCorvey says she loves Ferraro and thinks she was treated unfairly on the abortion issue. "She's tops in my book. I like her face, I like her attitude, I like everything about the lady.
"I even thought at one point if I could have called her and talked to her personally without going through 19 different channels, I think I would have.
"But," added the Texas who changed history, "I was too scared."
"She stood alone upon the sea wall"
She closed a very sweet letter to me in February 1985 with this quote from the Kahlil Gibran poem, The Prophet:
Only Almitra was silent, gazing after the ship until it had vanished into the mist.
And when all the people were dispersed she still stood alone upon the sea-wall, remembering in her heart his saying:
"A little while, a moment of rest upon the wind, and another woman shall bear me."