Remembering Norma McCorvey, the ‘Jane Roe’ of Roe v. Wade

Norma McCorvey, a pioneer for abortion rights, passed away at age 69. (Courtesy of Flickr)

“I wasn’t the wrong person to become Jane Roe,” the late Norma McCorvey said. “I wasn’t the right person to become Jane Roe. I was just the person who became Jane Roe, of Roe v. Wade. And my life story, warts and all, was a little piece of history,” she said in an interview with The New York Times.

When she became pregnant with her third child in 1970, McCorvey had no intention of becoming the face of a sociopolitical debate that has now lasted more than four decades. With the fear that she would not be able to provide for a third child, she sought an abortion in Texas, a state that prohibited all abortions except those that saved the mother’s life. It was not long until the eyes of the nation became intently focused on the case, Roe v. Wade, that stood before the Supreme Court. Throughout the proceedings, Jane Roe, a name adopted by McCorvey for the sake of anonymity, never stepped into a courthouse to testify. For three years, she had minimal contact with her lawyers, to the extent that she had first learned of the case’s outcome through her morning paper. For nearly a decade she lived a life secluded from the public eye, until she began to lend her name to the pro-choice movement.

McCorvey began to attend pro-choice rallies to become the public face of the movement. She told The New York Times that she was moved to tears when she saw 300,000 men and woman rally around her at a pro-choice movement in Washington D.C. Back in her home state of Texas, she took a job at the women’s clinic “A Choice for Women.” Shortly after she began her employment, “Operation Rescue,” an anti-abortion organization, opened right next door. This of course created heated tension, but McCorvey and Rev. Phillip Benham, who worked next door, eventually found themselves discussing social, political, and religious issues with each other.

After Benham and McCorvey discussed the topic of abortion extensively, McCorvey found herself drawn to a side she had opposed for her whole life. After her baptism into the Christian faith, the eyes of the public were once again fixed upon her. Arguably the nation’s most recognizable proponent of abortion access began to reject the pro-choice movement. However, the pro-choice movement did not seem to be deterred. In 1995, Susan Hill a member of the National Women’s Health Organization, said in an “ABC Nightline Review” interview, “I’m not…sure [that] there will really be any impact on the pro-choice movement… It was her story and her situation that was the symbol for the movement, not Norma McCorvey herself.”

In the same episode of “Nightline” that aired on the eighth of August, 1995, McCorvey stated that even though she sided with the pro-life movement, she did not oppose all abortions. “I still believe in a woman’s right to choose a safe and legal abortion, but only in the first trimester. Anything past the first trimester… I consider killing.” After she became a Catholic two years later however, she became more opposed to abortions. In an interview with Larry King in 1998 she publicly revealed that she hoped to see Roe v. Wade overturned. She stated that she had no plans of lobbying congress for its reversal, but stated that she planned on opening a crisis pregnancy center for women.

Sociopolitical movements may have recognizable names and faces attached to them, but movements are much more than a public figure. The women and men that are thrown onto a national stage only represent the tip of an iceberg. While McCorvey did play a major and public role for both the pro-life and pro-choice movements, she was only a representative of a debate far larger than herself. Landmark court cases are able to give a human face to fundamental issues that may have long been ignored. Brown v. Board of Education brought greater attention to the injustice of racial discrimination. Plaintiff Oliver Brown represented the greater cause of a more just society free of discrimination. The court case that acquitted the murderers of Emmet Till displayed to the nation the gruesome consequences of its long held discrimination.

Movements do not die with the figures that had long represented them, but instead are carried on by each generation until justice finally reigns. Norma McCorvey did not live an easy life, and she did not live a private life. Without expecting or wanting the attention that she was given, she was made the public representative of both sides of one of the most controversial debates in recent decades.


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