‘Jane Roe’ of Roe v. Wade just died, but the legacy she left behind isn’t what you’d expect

Her story is as complicated as the debate she sparked

In 1969, a 22-year old homeless woman in Texas became pregnant, and didn’t want to be. She signed a statement saying that she wanted to have a legal abortion, and two lawyers took her case anonymously to the Supreme Court, referring to her by the pseudonym Jane Roe.

By the time the decision was handed down, the woman, whose real name was Norma McCrovey, had already given birth to a daughter, who was put up for adoption. But her case legalized abortion nationwide, and set off one of the fiercest debates of the culture wars.  She died in Katy, TX on Saturday, at the age of 69.

McCorvey wasn’t an ideal ambassador for the reproductive rights movement: her life was painful and full of contradictions, and in later years, she became a vocal and passionate opponent of abortion. But if anything, it might be fitting that McCorvey was such a complicated person: abortion, after all, is an extremely complicated issue.

At its heart, the question of a woman’s right to choose is about how much our culture will let women be complex, flawed people; how much women are allowed to contradict themselves, make mistakes, or find themselves in situations that weren’t exactly what they planned. McCorvey was all of these things: she was complex, surprising, and flawed, because she was a person, just like all women are.

In the years that followed the Roe v. Wade decision, McCorvey came out of anonymity, and what happened to her when she stepped into the spotlight wasn’t pretty. People shouted “baby killer” at her on the street. At one point, somebody shot out the windows of her house with a shotgun.

McCorvey had lived a hard life—she’d been sexually abused by a relative as a child and forced to drop out of school in the ninth grade, and as an adult she’d struggled with alcohol, drugs, and suicidal thoughts. The pregnancy that resulted in the case was her third, but her two previous pregnancies had both resulted in the children being given up for adoption. She occasionally slept with men but identified as a lesbian—which wasn’t easy in the 1970s, especially in her hometown of Dallas. McCorvey once said that one of the reasons she wanted an abortion was because she thought the world was too cruel to bring a child into—which, given her experiences, might be understandable.

But seeing the vitriol that was directed at abortion doctors and patients did something for McCorvey. She became involved in reproductive rights activism, and worked as a counselor at women’s clinics. She became a public symbol of abortion rights, even though the label never quite fit.

Later in life, McCorvey had a religious conversion. She became an Evangelical Christian, and later a Roman Catholic. She changed her views on abortion rights, and began to refer to abortion as murder; campaigning against Roe v. Wade, testifying in front of a congressional panel, and slamming Barack Obama in the press for his views on reproductive rights.

To the pro-life side, she became a hero. To the pro-choicers, she was more complicated: the person they had once held up as someone in need of justice had turned around and become an opponent of those who had tried to bring it to her. In the end, her legacy is ambiguous. McCorvey published two memoirs during her lifetime, and  in one of them, she said, “I wasn’t the wrong person to become Jane Roe. I wasn’t the right person to become Jane Roe. I was just the person who became Roe, of Roe v. Wade. And my life story, warts and all, was a little piece of history.”