The Role of Norma McCorvey in Roe v Wade | History Hit

The Role of Norma McCorvey in Roe v Wade

Meagan Bickerstaff

08 Mar 2023

On 22 January 1973, the landmark US Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade legalised abortion in the United States, having a profound impact on women’s rights and reproductive freedom.

Norma McCorvey, also known by the pseudonym Jane Roe, played a pivotal role, and her involvement in the case and subsequent advocacy for reproductive rights had a significant impact on the national conversation surrounding abortion. In the documentary, AKA Jane Roe, McCorvey remembered some of the experiences she’d had when trying to access help – “The pro-lifers would holler, ‘don’t go in there and kill your baby’, I would yell, ‘oh, shut up.’”

However, in a historic and far-reaching decision, on 24 June 2022, the US Supreme Court ruled there is no constitutional right to abortion in America, upending Roe v. Wade and fracturing reproductive rights in America. 

Here we explore the role that Norma McCorvey – ‘Roe’ – played in the original landmark case and her legacy.

The complicated life of Norma McCorvey 

She was not the poster girl that would have been helpful.

(Pro-choice activist from the documentary, ‘AKA Jane Roe’)

The events that led to Norma McCorvey’s involvement in Roe v. Wade case were tumultuous. After coming out as gay to her parents and church, she was physically assaulted by her mother and sent to a “delinquent children’s school” following allegations of inappropriate behaviour with a female friend. Despite these setbacks, McCorvey was determined to create a stable life for herself and married at the age of 16, however unfortunately she suffered abuse from her husband, which she later alleged was the first of many falsehoods she told to cast herself as a victim.

In 1970, McCorvey was pregnant with her third child in Texas seeking an abortion. At the time, Texas law prohibited abortion except to save the life of the mother. McCorvey was unable to afford to travel out of state for an illegal abortion, and she believed that the law violated her constitutional rights. She hoped that by challenging the law in court, she could secure the right to have an abortion in Texas.

McCorvey filed a lawsuit against Henry Wade, the district attorney of Dallas County, challenging the constitutionality of the law. This lawsuit eventually made its way to the Supreme Court.

The legacy and current challenges to Roe v. Wade, which continues to divide Americans today.
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How much of a role did Norma play in Roe v Wade?

To reach its decision in Roe, the Supreme Court drew on decades of case law that established the government cannot interfere with certain personal decisions about procreation, marriage, and other aspects of family life.

Only five years prior, in Griswold v. Connecticut (1965), there was an appeal made of the criminal conviction of the executive director of the Planned Parenthood League of Connecticut for providing contraceptives to married couples. The Supreme Court found that a state statute making it a crime to use birth control violated married couples’ right to privacy. Seven years later, the justices found that this right also applied to single people (Eisenstadt v. Baird, 1972)

Together, these cases set the stage for the landmark decision in Roe v. Wade. The case was a reflection of the shifting societal norms of the late 1960s, when advocates for women’s rights, healthcare providers, clergy members, and legal experts launched a nationwide campaign to reform archaic criminal abortion laws prevalent in almost every state. These laws dated back to the mid-1800s, despite the fact that abortion had been legal in the United States since colonial times. 

Between 1967 and 1973, four states, namely Alaska, Hawaii, New York, and Washington, repealed their abortion bans, and another 13 enacted limited reforms (Gold, 1990). Even before Roe, lawsuits challenging criminal abortion laws had already been filed and were working their way through the courts in more than a dozen states.

On 22 January 1973, the Supreme Court issued its decision in Roe v. Wade, ruling that a woman has a constitutional right to an abortion. The Court held that a state could regulate abortion in the second and third trimesters of pregnancy, but not in the first trimester, when the decision to terminate a pregnancy should be left to the woman and her doctor.

McCorvey’s role in the case was not widely publicised until several years later, when she revealed her identity and became a vocal advocate for reproductive rights. In retrospect, she disclosed that she had not undergone an abortion at the time of the lawsuit, but had instead sought one as she was unable to travel out of state for an illegal procedure due to financial constraints.

The US Supreme Court Building

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Senate Democrats / CC BY 2.0

The system took advantage of Norma

McCorvey continued to be involved in the reproductive rights movement and worked for a time at a women’s clinic which provided abortions. She later became a spokesperson for pro-choice organisations, while also speaking out against the tactics of anti-abortion activists, many of whom had used her story and image to promote their cause.

In later years, Norma McCorvey admitted that she never intended to become a plaintiff in the landmark Roe v. Wade case; instead, she sought to have an abortion. Unfortunately, the lawyers who sought her out to represent their case, Linda Coffee and Sarah Weddington, seemed to prioritise their interest in her as a plaintiff rather than as a client in need of assistance. It is worth noting that Weddington herself had undergone an abortion and had worked for an abortion referral network. Despite McCorvey’s desire for an abortion, she carried the child to term while the case proceeded.

In the late 1980s, Norma McCorvey wanted to become an advocate for reproductive rights. However, her different perspective on abortion compared to other abortion-rights advocates caused them to alienate her. They didn’t invite her to their book parties or their protests or their marches. When she was invited, they would only allow her to speak a few words, which angered her.

Norma McCorvey, left, who was Jane Roe in the 1973 Roe v. Wade case, with her attorney, Gloria Allred, outside the Supreme Court in April 1989, where the Court heard arguments in a case that could have overturned the Roe v. Wade decision.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Lorie Shaull / CC BY-SA 2.0

Norma switches sides

In 1995, Norma was working at an abortion clinic in Texas, and as is the way often of people who oppose abortion, they set up shop right next to an abortion clinic, setting up what they call a crisis pregnancy centre. Flip Benham, an evangelical minister, who was the head of anti-abortion-rights organisation Operation Rescue befriended Norma at a time when the pro-choice movement was pushing her away. Norma switched sides.

As one of the heads of the pro-life community put it in Texas, “the poster child jumped off the poster.” But just as Norma didn’t feel at home on the pro-choice side, she didn’t feel at home on the pro-life side either, because they’re exploiting her too. They tell her that she can’t be gay — she had to renounce her homosexuality, and this caused her untold grief and suffering.

Norma announced in a shocking confession on a Hulu / FX documentary that she decided to switch sides and crusade against her own case because, “It was 1969. I was pregnant and I was scared. These two attorneys were looking for a plaintiff to help overturn the abortion laws.”

She explained the reason she changed her stance on abortion was because she had become a born-again Christian. When she began working with Flip Benham’s anti-abortion group, she even filed a lawsuit to overturn Roe v. Wade. However, she later stated that she had only done so because she had been paid by the anti-abortion groups and that she remained personally pro-choice.

Was she a hero or a villain? 

McCorvey passed away in 2017 at the age of 69. Her legacy continues to be debated by both sides of the abortion debate. Some view her as a hero for her role in legalising abortion and her subsequent advocacy for reproductive rights. Others criticise her for her later reversal on the issue and her willingness to work with anti-abortion groups.

Regardless of one’s opinion of McCorvey, there is no denying the impact she had on the national conversation surrounding abortion. Her willingness to come forward and share her story helped to humanise the issue and put a face to the women who seek abortions. Her legacy will continue to be felt for years to come, as the debate over reproductive rights shows no signs of abating.

In this episode we are looking into the first time abortion was made illegal in the US. This is the first of a special two-part series looking at the history of abortion in the US and the UK.
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Meagan Bickerstaff