Seeing Norma: The Conflicted Life of the Woman at the Center of Roe v. Wade
Norma McCorvey, the Jane Roe at the center of Roe v. Wade, was an imperfect plaintiff.
When she undertook Roe as a young single woman in Dallas, she didn’t think about the struggle for reproductive rights. She could barely make it as a waitress, had given birth twice to children put up for adoption, and just wanted an abortion. She later lied about how she got pregnant, saying she had been raped. More than a decade later, when she took charge and sincerely wanted to join the movement she had come to represent, the leaders denied her a meaningful role in their protests and rallies.
“I think they’re ashamed of themselves,” McCorvey told Texas Monthly in 1993. “They would like me to have a college education, with poise and little white gloves.”
Still, Roe remained central to McCorvey’s life, linked to her by those same two countercurrents that would frame the abortion debate in the United States — religion and sex.
McCorvey had hundreds of partners, almost all of them women, she said. She also worked as a prostitute in Dallas for a time. But she was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness and saw sex as sinful. That her claimant had made abortion legal left her fearing for her soul. That was part of the reason she was born again in 1995, she said — the better to join the fight against Roe.
Yet, despite her public reversal, McCorvey — like a majority of Americans now — believed that abortion should be legal during the first trimester. She shared this in the first interview she ever gave, days after Roe, and she shared it again in her last, when she spoke to me from a hospital bed at the end of her life. (During my decade of research for “The Family Roe,” a book about Roe and his plaintiff, I spent hundreds of hours interviewing McCorvey.)
Her private papers — which I found in her former partner’s garage just before the house was sold for foreclosure — offer a first-hand insight into McCorvey as she really was: a woman whose torments and ambivalences about abortion are dividing the country. and which is still relevant in the new, post-Roe world.
Here is a selection of the material.
McCorvey was sent to a Catholic boarding school and later, at age 16, to a state boarding school for “delinquent girls.” She enjoyed being away from her family and had a string of girlfriends. But her mother, Mary Sandefur, beat her for being gay, Sandefur said in an interview, and McCorvey began to see sex and her sexuality as sinful and illicit. Years after she became pregnant for the third time and requested an abortion, she told people that she had been raped, imagining herself not as a sinner but as a victim.
McCorvey was the third consecutive generation in her family to become pregnant out of wedlock, according to documents and interviews with members of her family. Her grandmother soon married, while her mother was forced to leave the city, give birth in secret and hand over her child to her parents.
McCorvey had many jobs to make ends meet – waitress and drug dealer, prostitute and painter, respiratory therapist and bond runner. Money was a constant struggle. And when she became pregnant in 1969 and found an unlicensed doctor who would perform an abortion, she couldn’t afford his $500 fee, nor the cost of flying to California, where abortion was legal.
Over time, McCorvey turned her claimant into a career and repeatedly changed her public stance depending on her audience. But her personal opinion on abortion did not change: On the day after her Christian rebirth, as well as at the end of her life, she reiterated what she had first told The Baptist Press in 1973: that abortion should be legal during the first trimester .
Leaders in the abortion rights movement were understandably uncomfortable when McCorvey admitted to lying about rape in 1987. But even after she apologized and devoted years to teaching Roe and abortion, she was almost shunned — “scorned, rejected, rejected, discredited, and excluded,” in the words of Barbara Ellis, an activist with the movement.
In April 1970, Linda Coffee and Sarah Weddington, the two attorneys representing McCorvey, amended Roe v. Wade to make it a class action case, not only on her behalf, they wrote, but also including “all other women in same situation”. They described that situation in an affidavit, claiming, among other things, that their pseudonymous plaintiff could not afford to travel to where abortion was legal and safe.
McCorvey found solace in religion, especially the patron saints and rosaries that became a part of her daily life after she converted to Catholicism in 1998. But she also told a filmmaker in 1995 that if the abortion rights movement had embraced her, she never would. have left it. Most disturbingly, she said, in 1992 her attorney Weddington, who hadn’t tried to help McCorvey have an abortion, had had one herself.
This was completely false. The first time McCorvey spoke of rape was in a Good Housekeeping article that appeared in June 1973, five months after Roe’s decision. Her attorney, Coffee, said in an interview that the article was the first time she and her co-lawyer had heard of McCorvey’s rape allegations.