The plaintiff who challenged abortion laws
Norma McCorvey 1947–2017
When Norma McCorvey agreed to be a plaintiff in a 1970 lawsuit challenging Texas’ anti-abortion law, she didn’t even read the affidavit. Known by the legal pseudonym “Jane Roe,” she gave birth to her unwanted child four months later, surrendered the baby for adoption, and had little further contact with her lawyers. Yet McCorvey’s case led to one of the most significant and divisive Supreme Court decisions in U.S. history: the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that established a constitutional right to abortion. “I don’t require that much in my life,” McCorvey reflected in 1994. “I just never had the privilege to go into an abortion clinic, lay down, and have an abortion.”
Born in Simmesport, La., but raised in Texas, McCorvey had a “difficult childhood,” said The Guardian (U.K.). Her mother was an alcoholic, her TV repairman father was absent, and at age 15 “she was sent to live with a cousin who abused her sexually.” Married at 16, she soon left her abusive husband; her mother raised their daughter. At 18, she had a second child, born out of wedlock, whom she gave up for adoption. She came out as a lesbian but at 22 was pregnant again, said The New York Times. McCorvey wanted an abortion, but the procedure was banned in Texas and most other states, except when the mother’s life was at risk. She was sent by a lawyer to visit Dallas attorneys Sarah Weddington and Linda Coffee, who wanted a plaintiff to challenge Texas’ abortion laws. They succeeded: The Supreme Court’s 1973 ruling effectively legalized abortion during the first trimester. McCorvey “remained largely unknown for nearly a decade” after the decision, before shedding her anonymity and joining the abortion rights movement.
Then, in 1995, McCorvey made “a stunning reversal,” said The Washington Post. She became a born-again Christian and a staunch foe of abortion. Critics portrayed her as “hungry for cash and attention,” while anti-abortion activists hailed McCorvey’s defection “as a victory for their cause.” Some observers said she was used as a prop by both sides in the abortion fight, but McCorvey seemed to accept her own role in history. “I wasn’t the wrong person to become Jane Roe,” she’d said in 1994. “I wasn’t the right person to become Jane Roe. I was just the person who became Jane Roe.”