Norma McCorvey - The Story of Jane Roe

Norma_McCorvey.jpg
Norma McCorvey. Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Who is Norma McCorvey (aka Jane Roe)?

Though not as well known by her real name, Norma McCorvey used the alias "Jane Roe" when she became the the plaintiff in the landmark supreme court case of Roe v. Wade. Because of the sensitive issue of abortion, Norma McCorvey and her lawyers chose to protect her real identity when they filed this lawsuit.

It wan not until a 1984 television interview that Norma McCorvey finally revealed that she was, in fact, Jane Roe.

McCorvey managed to remain anonymous until that time. In 1994, she published her first autobiography (with Andy Meisler, 1994) titled, I Am Roe: My Life, Roe v. Wade, and Freedom of Choice:

"My name is Norma McCorvey, but you know me as 'Jane Roe.' Twenty-one years ago, when I was poor and alone and pregnant, I was the plaintiff in Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that gave American women the right to choose abortion, to control their...own bodies, lives, and destinies."

Norma McCorvey's Background:

Born as Norma Nelson, Norma endured a troubled past and was a victim of abuse. At the age of 13, her parents divorced. She had often run away from home, was sent to reform school, and eventually became a high school drop out. When Norma was 16, she married Elwood McCorvey, left Texas and moved to California. Due to domestic violence, she divorced Elwood and returned home, pregnant. After her daughter Melissa was born, McCorvey granted her mother legal custody of the baby.

In September of 1969, after just losing her job as a ticket seller for a traveling carnival, Norma McCovey was facing an unintentional pregnancy. At that time, Norma was 22 years old and divorced; her mother and stepfather were already raising her five-year-old daughter. McCorvey did not want to continue with her pregnancy.

She initially said this pregnancy was the result of rape, but admitted years later that she made up the story about being raped in an attempt to make a stronger case for obtaining an abortion. McCorvey was poor, could not find a doctor willing to perform an illegal abortion, and could not afford to travel to another state where abortion laws were less strict.

Years After Roe v. Wade:

McCorvey decided to ally herself publicly with the abortion rights movement in 1989. Though she had endured many incidents of harassment since making her identity known, she made a speech on Capitol Hill on April 9, 1989. For awhile, McCorvey worked at a family planning clinic and traveled around the US giving speeches promoting the reproductive rights of women. People reacted to McCorvey in different ways. While some saw her as a famous woman who paved the way for women’s rights, others saw her as a "heavy-duty feminist theorist or even a politician," characterizations she laughed at in her autobiography. People opposed to abortion would call her a "demon" or "baby-killer." But in her own words,

"Actually, Norma McCorvey is none of these women. I'm just a regular woman who like so many other regular women, got pregnant and didn't know what to do."

Norma McCorvey Changes Her Stance:

However, McCorvey announced, in August of 1995, that she had switched sides on the abortion debate. "I'm pro-life," McCorvey stated. "I think I have always been pro-life, I just didn't know it." This decision case after 28+ years of what she called guilt induced drug binges and various jobs in abortion clinics in an attempt to justify her involvement in the legalization of abortion. That year, Norma was baptized and gave her life to God. She began to work at the national offices of the prominent pro-life organization, Operation Rescue. In 1997, feeling a need to share her personal message, McCorvey founded Roe No More Ministry.

Feminist lawyer, Gloria Alfred has offered her opinion that changing from a pro-choice to a pro-life stance proved to a be a wise career choice for McCorvey - who reportedly was earning an annual salary of $40,000 from Roe No More Ministries. Later that year, with the help of Gary Thomas, McCorvey wrote her second autobiography: Won By Love: Norma McCorvey, Jane Roe of Roe v. Wade, Speaks Out for the Unborn as She Shares Her New Conviction for Life. McCorvey received approximately $80,000 when Christian publisher, Thomas Nelson, bought the rights to her book. In this autobiography, McCorvey shared that she was living a life that was fully in compliance with evangelical ideals. The born-again McCorvey explained how she was now disgusted by and against abortion as well as homosexuality (even though she had been in a lesbian relationship for years). 

Norma McCorvey has been criticized for playing the Jane Roe Story from every angle - switching from one extreme viewpoint to the other - perhaps in her own attempt to receive continued fame and glory. Reporter, Joshua Prager has gone as far to allege, "Norma McCorvey was never what she seemed... in truth McCorvey has long been less pro-choice or pro-life than pro-Norma."

In the years since Roe v. Wade, Norma McCorvey has publicly stated that she feels that she had been used by crusaders on both sides of the abortion movement. She explains that, when she agreed to be a plaintiff in the case, it was not her intent to further a cause. All that she really wanted was to be able to obtain an abortion and could not because of anti-abortion laws in the state of Texas. Both sides of the abortion debate have used McCorvey to further their causes:

  • Pro-life groups paint McCorvey as a villain, proving their stance that women who seek abortions are immoral or misguided. They characterize her as a "test case" on abortion laws and are quick to point out how she lied about her pregnancy being caused by a rape.
  • Pro-choice groups try to portray McCorvey as a real person, an ordinary woman -- too poor to afford a legal abortion, being more traumatized because she eventually had to give her child up for adoption because she could not have an abortion - that she didn't have a choice.

Ironically, though Norma McCorvey's role helped to secure the legalization of abortion in the US, she was never able to have the abortion that actually prompted the whole Roe v. Wade case. Insightfully, she pointed out in a 1989 interview,

''More and more, I'm the issue. ...I don't know if I should be the issue. Abortion is the issue. I never even had an abortion.''

Eventually, in an attempt to distance herself from her involvement in Roe v. Wade, in January 2004, she changed the name of her ministry to Crossing Over Ministry. As per McCorvey,

“Deciding to change the name of the organization to “Crossing Over” is an indication that my life’s work is better defined not just by my past involvement in Roe v. Wade, but more generally about our constant struggle to better ourselves in Christ; that is, our constant crossing over.”

Sources:

Belkin, L. (May 9, 1989). Woman Behind the Symbols in Abortion Debate. New York Times.

McCorvey, N. (1994) . I Am Roe: My Life, Roe v. Wade, and Freedom of Choice. New York: Harper-Collins.

McCorvey, N. & Thomas, G. (1998). Won by Love: Norma McCorvey, Jane Roe of Roe V. Wade, Speaks Out for the Unborn As She Shares Her New Conviction for Life. Thomas Nelson Inc.

Continue Reading