The messy, contradictory legacy that Jane Roe of Roe v. Wade has left behind

Norma McCorvey spent her life actively fighting for and against abortion rights

On Saturday, Norma McCorvey, better known as Jane Roe, the plaintiff in the Roe v. Wade case, died from heart failure at the age of 69 in an assisted-living home in Katy Texas. In 1973, the Supreme Court, in a 7-2 decision, affirmed the legality abortion under the Fourteenth Amendment. McCorvey maintained her anonymity until the 1980s, emerging as a prominent pro-choice activist and later rejecting the movement as a whole. 

 She never actually had an abortion

McCorvey was pregnant three times. She put her second child up for adoption. At age 22, McCorvey found herself pregnant out of wedlock again. Finding herself in an unstable situation, she sought an abortion. However, in a later interview with Brad Harrub, Ph.D, McCorvey revealed that she wasn’t even sure the procedure was.

“I went to one doctor, and told him I wanted an abortion … I didn’t know what it meant, but I wanted one. I just knew I didn’t want to have the baby.”

At the time, abortion was illegal in Texas, except when the mother’s life was in danger. She did not have the means to travel to another state where the procedure was legal, and when she made the trip to an illegal abortion clinic in Dallas, it had been closed down.

McCorvey’s doctor referred her to an adoption lawyer, who then referred her to his friend and legal advisor Linda Coffee. Coffee and her classmate Sarah Weddington wanted to find a plaintiff to file a suit against the abortion statutes in Texas. McCorvey, pregnant, poor and confused, seemed like the perfect candidate.

Throughout the process of the trial, McCorvey seemed to think that her attorneys had less concern for her personal welfare, and more focus on the implication the case would have for all women in the U.S. McCorvey later presented herself as the victim of Coffee and Weddington, accusing them of exploiting her unwanted pregnancy to win a victory for their abortion rights cause. Namely, McCorvey claims that she asked her attorney for a referral for an abortionist, but they refused to help her, believing that being pregnant would help their cause. Therefore, she carried her third pregnancy to term before the court even decided the case; she put her child up for adoption.

McCorvey lied that the Roe pregnancy was a product of rape

Additionally, McCorvey lied about her third pregnancy being the result of rape. In a 1987 interview with WUSA-TV, she revealed that she got pregnant “throughout what [she] thought was love.” She claimed that she continued this false narrative because she was “bitter” and then allowed her attorney to take her case to the Supreme Court. According to her attorney, rape had no real bearing on the outcome of the case. The Supreme Court declared women could have an abortion on demand.

She was never directly involved in her case

Despite being the namesake of  one of the most important Supreme Court cases for women’s rights, McCorvey herself was never a passionate, revolutionary feminist. She agreed to meet her attorneys for the free pizza and signed an affidavit that set the course for this monumental case to take place. McCorvey herself never even entered a courtroom during her trial. She had little contact with their lawyers, never went to court or testified, and remained uninvolved in the proceedings as it made its way to the Supreme Court. In fact, McCorvey herself found out about the case’s decision in the newspaper like every other citizen.

She went from being in a lesbian relationship to born-again Christianity

In her memoir I Am Roe, McCorvey wrote that her mother sought custody of her first child because she did not want a lesbian raising the child. Soon after the birth of McCorvey’s third child, she met Connie Gonzalez. The two quickly became a couple, providing some stability in Mc Corvey’s messy life. However, after 35 years, the relationship ended badly. After converting to Christianity, McCorvey broke up with her long time lesbian partner, now viewing homosexuality as sinful. Later after the break up, Gonzales called McCorvey as “phony” in a Vanity Fair interview.

And in doing so, became a rabid pro-life activist

After revealing her identity as Jane Roe in the 1980s, McCorvey became very involved in pro-choice advocacy. She worked in a women’s clinic and attended rallies and protest marches for abortion rights. However, McCorvey’s outlook on the issue soon changed.In 1995, McCorvey was working at a clinic in Dallas when the pro-life organization Operation Rescue moved in next door. She became friends with a preacher from the organization, Philip “Flip” Benham. Eventually, McCorvey, much to the nation’s surprise, was baptized as a Born-Again Christian live on T.V. Later, McCorvey converted to Roman Catholicism In 1998, McCorvey told The Associated Press,

“I’m 100 percent pro-life. I don’t believe in abortion even in an extreme situation. If the woman is impregnated by a rapist, it’s still a child. You’re not to act as your own God.”

Some think that McCorvey’s change in opinion comes from her mistreatment from feminist leaders. In 1995, McCorvey told The Dallas Morning News that she felt ignored by many wealthy, educated abortion-rights leaders saying she “wasn’t good enough for them” and was shut out of many national pro-choice celebrations.

After this religious and ideological transformation, McCorvey dedicated the latter part of her life to the pro-life movement. She attended anti-abortion rallies, vocally repudiating the pro-choice movement she never fully embraced. In 1997, McCorvey began her own ministry called Roe No More that worked to overturn Roe v. Wade. In 2003, she went to court, but the Fifth Circuit appeals court dismissed her case. In this TV advertisement for anti-abortion, McCorvey vowed to dedicate the rest of her life undoing the law that bears her name.

44 years after the monumental Roe v. Wade decision, the issue of abortion is still a contentious topic of debate on various political, social, religious, and health platforms. As we remember the name that brought this issue to the national stage, it is important to recognize her complicated life story that can perhaps help advocates on both sides of the issue better understand the realities of women and abortion.

University of Southern California