Today marks the 40th anniversary since the Supreme Court ruled on the controversial Roe vs. Wade case. The result, of course, was legalized abortion across the United States of America and a seemingly never-ending debate surrounding theology, public policy and women’s rights.
While many people are well aware of the general themes surrounding the legal battle, the background of the woman at the center of it all, Jane Roe (real name: Norma McCorvey), may be somewhat unknown to most Americans. Her story is a fascinating one, as the plaintiff-turned-activist quickly became the catalyst — and face — of legalized abortion, later renouncing her role to become one of the nation’s most outspoken pro-life advocates. And even if you might have known that, there’s plenty of other fascinating details you may not.
McCorvey, who went by the pseudonym “Jane Roe” for the purposes of her role in a legal battle that set off decades of furor, has gone through some fascinating evolutions over the past four decades (in case you’re wondering, “Wade” was Henry Wade, Dallas County’s District attorney who was attempting to uphold Texas law). Contrary to what one might expect from the woman who once fervently challenged abortion regulations, McCorvey, in her later years, has expressed sadness about the Roe vs. Wade verdict. In 1997, about the ruling’s anniversary, she told the outlet that it made her “very sad.”
As was documented in a past CNN interview, McCorvey, who was only 21 when her case made it to the nation’s high court, didn’t have an easy life. Interestingly, while she fought for abortion rights, McCorvey never actually had the procedure. At the time that Roe vs. Wade was heard, she was on her third pregnancy (the case wasn’t decided until two years after her child was born). She ended up giving birth to a baby girl, who was subsequently given up for adoption. In addition, her first child was raised by her mother and her second was cared for by the father.
According to her book, “I Am Roe: My Life, Roe v. Wade, and Freedom of Choice,” McCorvey described suffering many abuses in her early life. Among them, she was a ninth-grade dropout, she was abused emotionally and physically as a child, she was married at 16 and subsequently beaten by her husband and she was raped. Additionally, McCorvey experimented with individuals of both sexes and also used drugs and alcohol in her younger years (at least one interview seems to indicate that she used these substances until later in her life). In a past media interview the advocate also described herself as a “street kid” and “a rebel” during her teen years.
A 1994 New York Times profile, outlining McCorvey’s more than two-decade romance with a woman named Connie Gonzalez, provides a more complex depiction of McCorvey’s early life, delving into some fascinating details surrounding her background:
Her grandmother was a prostitute and fortuneteller. Her father was a television repairman, her mother an alcoholic. Part Cajun, part Cherokee Indian, and raised as a Jehovah’s Witness, Norma Leah Nelson was 10 when she took money from the gas station where she worked to run away from home. After that, her education came from reform schools until the ninth grade. By the time she was 15, she had been sexually assaulted by a nun and a male relative of her mother’s. At 16, she married an itinerant steel worker, Woody McCorvey, who, she says, beat her. She left him and returned to her mother’s house in Dallas with plans to raise her unborn child alone.
But after her daughter, Melissa, was born and Ms. McCorvey confided in her mother that her sexual preference was for women, she says, her mother kidnapped Melissa, banished Ms. McCorvey from the house and raised her granddaughter herself. Ms. McCorvey writes that when she was drunk, her mother tricked her into signing adoption papers, giving away custody.
It wasn’t until the 1980s that her book — and her identity — were known to the American public. Once she released her name and officially emerged from the cloak of protection that “Jane Roe” had afforded her, McCorvey apparently worked in clinics that provided abortions and became a public speaker (she also cleaned homes, among other jobs). A Seattle Times article from 1994 provides a recap of how she came forward, while also providing some additional details about McCorvey’s life, including her sexuality:
First – shaking, sick to her stomach and fortified by vodka and Valium – she told a Dallas television reporter she was Jane Roe of Roe vs. Wade, the anonymous pregnant plaintiff whose case led to the 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion in the United States.
Next, she admitted she had lied about that pregnancy in the hope it would help her get an abortion: It was a casual affair that made her pregnant, not rape as she told her Roe lawyers.
And, little by little, through occasional interviews, sporadic speaking engagements and a 1989 television movie, she revealed that before she gave birth to the Roe baby and gave her to adoptive parents, she had given birth to two other children (one adopted, she believes, by its father; the other adopted by McCorvey’s mother). Slowly, she began speaking of her long-term lesbian relationship, her job cleaning houses, the joys of being a grandmother herself.
For more than 20 years, McCorvey worked for the pro-choice movement, continuing along the same path that had led to her 1973 victory, as CNN documents. But in 1995, her situation changed. At the time, she was working at a clinic in Dallas, Texas, when a pro-life group called Operation Rescue moved in next door. At the time, McCorvey was extremely pro-choice, voicing her disdain for the group and continuing to dig her heels in on the abortion issue. But after striking up a relationship with one of the evangelical faith leaders working for the organization, her outlook began to change.
After meeting The Rev. Phillip Benham, national director for Operation Rescue, she converted to Christianity — a startling evolution, considering her background and the battle she had engaged in over abortion rights. Following her change-of-heart, she was baptized on national television, wrote another book about her faith experience (“Won By Love”) and began working for the pro-life movement.
As CNN noted 15 years ago when it completed its profile on McCorvey, her conversion and subsequent emergence as a pro-life leader has widely been viewed as a positive for those who oppose abortion. Pro-choice advocates, including the lawyers who once represented her, have obviously been less-than-impressed by her decision to join their opposition. The differences between McCorvey’s then-and-now are shocking.
While in 1994, before her conversion, McCorvey said that she would have had an abortion “in a heartbeat” had the procedure been legal in 1969, her tune changed just a few years later when she said that the pregnancy was already too far along for her to have gone through with it.
Contrary to past interviews before her conversion during which McCorvey seemed to have no regrets about being the woman at the center of the infamous abortion case, her comments over the past 15 years have painted a different picture of her experience. A web site called EndRoe.org explains her role in the Supreme Court Case that came to starkly divide Americans:
[McCorvey] describes herself as having been relatively ignorant of the facts of her own case, and claims that her attorneys simply used her for their own predetermined ends. They “were looking for somebody, anybody, to use to further their own agenda. I was their most willing dupe.” She had indeed become pregnant with her third child and sought to end her pregnancy, but she was not aware of all the implications of abortion or even what the term itself meant. “‘Abortion’, to me, meant ‘going back’ to the condition of not being pregnant.” She did not fully realize that this process would end a human life. She says that her attorney Sarah Weddington, rather than correcting her misconceptions, deliberately confused the issue: “For their part, my lawyers lied to me about the nature of abortion. Weddington convinced me, ‘It’s just a piece of tissue. You just missed your period.'” Another problem was that Norma claimed that her pregnancy was the result of a gang-rape, in order to present a more sympathetic picture. As she has since admitted, this was totally untrue.
Norma states that her actual involvement in the case was minimal. She signed the initial affidavit without even reading it, and “was never invited into court. I never testified. I was never present before any court on any level, and I was never at any hearing on my case . . . I found out about the decision from the newspaper just like the rest of the country.”
TheBlaze reached out to Weddington to discuss the case and the allegations that McCorvey has waged against her, but she declined to comment (she has enjoyed widespread success, though, as a result of the case). The plaintiff and her legal representatives have drifted apart over the years, particularly following the activist’s political change-of-heart on the issue of abortion.
Diverting from Weddington and her former pro-choice compatriots, McCorvey has been heavily-active in pro-life activities since concerting to Christianity. She launched an organization called “Roe No More” in 1997, although it appears that the initiative is no longer in operation (a phone number listed on its web site has been disconnected).
In addition to numerous appearances, speeches and commentaries, McCorvey also attempted to take legal action against the Roe vs. Wade verdict. In 2004, a court struck down her attempt to have the case overturned. The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, Louisiana, dismissed the case after McCorvey claimed that abortions cause long-term emotional damage to the women who have them. And in 2009, the activist was arrested for interrupting Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor‘s nomination hearing.
Of late, McCorvey, now 65, has seemingly left the public eye, but in Oct. 2012, she emerged to record a controversial video aimed at President Barack Obama’s abortion record. In the clip, she encouraged viewers not to vote for the president and said that he “murders babies.” She was paid $1,000 for the spot:
In a recent Vanity Fair article, a plethora of details about McCorvey were released — not all of them favorable — as the outlet attempts to recap the woman’s complex life. Among other tidbits, Gonzalez, her former lover, is quoted as calling the Roe plaintiff a “phony” and her own mother discusses the difficulties she encountered in raising McCorvey. Her daughter, too, has less-than-favorable words for her mother.
TheBlaze reached out to Fr. Frank Pavone, a Catholic leader who has worked closely with McCorvey to learn more about her character, her current status and how he believes the Roe vs. Wade case has impact the woman’s life. Today, Pavone claims that McCorvey is living in Texas and is attempting to “step away from the limelight and take care of herself.” As for those who have criticized the woman who brought legalized abortion upon America, the priest had only favorable words for her.
Pavone knows McCorvey’s character well, as he is one of her spiritual advisers and he received her into the Catholic Church in 1998, following her earlier conversion into the evangelical Christian faith.
“She had a sincere conversion, just as many Americans do every day and many former abortion clinic workers have had. I have never known Norma to be greedy,” Pavone wrote in an e-mail to TheBlaze. “She did serve the pro-life movement full-time, and as hundreds of Americans do, she drew a legitimate salary for that employment. However, I have been side by side with her in many projects and activities in which Norma gave of her time and effort without either seeking or receiving a penny.”
No matter where one stands on McCorvey, one thing is clear: The historical figure who was the centerpiece of one of America’s most contentious Supreme Court cases has a complex past and, subsequently, is an individual who is viewed with a diversity of opinion by people on both sides of the aisle.