How to reckon with the legacy of Norma McCorvey, who died on Saturday, the “Roe” in Roe v. Wade—the case that made abortion legal in the U.S.—and an eventual abortion opponent?
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On January 22, 1973, the Supreme Court handed down the Roe v. Wade decision, making elective abortion legal in all 50 states in the nation. But Norma Lea McCorvey, the woman who sued under the pseudonym “Jane Roe,” was nowhere near the courthouse when the ruling came. No one called her to inform her that her case had made abortion legal without restriction in the first trimester, and pregnancy she had sought to abort instead went to term, the baby was placed for adoption and was likely already out of toddlerhood.
On February 18, 2017, in Katy, Texas, McCorvey died of apparent heart failure in a nursing home. She was just 69 years old. In the decades since the SCOTUS case that would be her legacy, McCorvey had been an abortion-rights activist, an abortion-clinic worker, a lesbian, a pro-life convert, an anti-abortion activist, a born-again Christian, a Roman Catholic convert, a renounced lesbian. She sued to have abortion made illegal again, claiming she was misled during her case, that she had changed her mind about the morality and legality of abortion, and even started her own “ministry” called “Roe No More,” which, ironically enough is now nothing but a landing page for a dead website.
The statements that flooded my inbox after McCorvey’s death was reported are a snapshot of just how complicated her life—and her legacy—really are. In the last day I have seen anti-abortion legal groups mourn her passing while subtly hoping it’s a sign that Roe, the legal precedent, is not long for this world, either. I’ve learned that she “endorsed” the efforts of 40 Days for Life, the sidewalk ministry that prays in front of abortion clinics for 80 days each year, begging patients not to end their pregnancies. Most surprising to me was the discovery that although McCorvey was baptized by former Operation Rescue leader Flip Benham, it’s Operation Rescue’s current head Troy Newman who says she spent several months of her life living in his home with his family.
On the other hand, I have yet to see a press release coming from the pro-abortion-rights movement regarding her death.
It is almost impossible to write about McCorvey and her impact on the abortion debate because at its center there were almost two separate people: Both of them boiled down to their essence until there was nothing more than a caricature left behind. The pro-choice movement embraced “Jane Roe,” the young Texan who desperately wanted an abortion but could not get one in her state and could not afford to travel to a state with less restrictive laws. There was never a solid place for her within the movement as “Norma McCorvey,” the woman who got pregnant out of wedlock three times, eventually placing each child for adoption, the woman who struggled in the spotlight as she attempted to re-create her entire identity around being “Roe.”
The pro-life movement, on the other hand, wanted “Norma McCorvey.” They were eager to help her shed her mantle as the woman who made abortion a legal, constitutional right. The more dramatic her conversion could become—anti-abortion activist, born-again Christian, ex-clinic volunteer, renounced lesbian—the bigger an asset she was to their side.
But there is little doubt that both sides used her. There should have been no reason that the biggest pro-life convert in the movement couldn’t even keep her ministry afloat, or that two decades of Roe v. Wade anniversary events were held without anyone asking her to make an appearance. If she was their greatest victory, why had no one offered to pen another memoir in her name? She was purposefully held out of the spotlight, just to have everyone drop her name into their press releases only when she was no longer able to speak for herself.
To be clear, she was used by the pro-choice movement nearly as badly. The lawyers representing her knew she would never get an abortion during the pregnancy and that in fact if she did, they would no longer have a case. She was likely manipulated into remaining pregnant, then all but ignored once the case was over. Even once she did try to make abortion rights her issue it seemed that some were determined to shove her to the side, the reality of McCorvey not nearly as pliant and agreeable as the pseudonymous “Roe.” As former clinic director Charlotte Taft told reporter Joshua Prager in 2013, it was a shame that the pro-choice movement did not make McCorvey feel more needed or more special.
McCorvey may have allegedly changed her mind about legal abortion during her lifetime, but her life itself is a perfect example of why the procedure needs to remain legal, and in every state. Married at age 16, pregnant three times by age 22, all outside of marriage and in a massively conservative state, with nothing but a ninth-grade education, McCorvey sought out a lawyer not to overturn a law, but to try to find a way to get an illegal abortion. Like the near 60 percent of women seeking to end a pregnancy, she already had giving birth. She knew adoption was an option—had chosen it in the past—but wanted an abortion anyway. And she lacked any of the financial resources to connect with a legal—or illegal—procedure on her own.
Abortion opponents claim that when people who don’t have access abortion instead give birth and parent the baby or place the baby for adoption, everything eventually works out in the end. For McCorvey, it doesn’t appear that her happy ending ever arrived. Would she have regretted her abortion if she had ever had the chance to get one? We’ll never know. But at least she would have had the ability to make that choice for herself.
So, rest in peace, Norma Lea McCorvey, and thank you for providing millions of people with the ability to make this choice for themselves. Yes, even if you may not actually agree with their decision at all.
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