Norma (Nelson) McCorvey is better nown as the plaintiff “Jane Roe” in the important Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade. She had a difficult childhood that included an absent father and alcoholic mother, and years at an institution for troubled girls. She was first sent there at ten, after running away with another girl and being discovered kissing. Norma married at sixteen a man who later assaulted her. She returned to her mother’s home in her second trimester.
McCorvey claims her mother deceived her into signing adoption papers. Once she had legal custody of the child, she threw McCorvey out. Norma started drinking heavily. A second pregnancy resulted in a baby she placed for adoption. McCorvey came out as a lesbian. In 1969, at 21 years of age, she was pregnant for the third time. Her friends advised her to say she’d been raped to be granted an abortion. With no police report, it didn’t work. She tried finding an underground clinic but they’d been shut down.
She was put in contact with two attorneys hoping to challenge abortion bans, Linda Coffee and Sarah Weddington. They argued the case with her as plaintiff. It took three years to reach the Supreme Court, so McCorvey herself was not granted an abortion. That third baby was likewise placed for adoption. McCorvey did not attend any of the trials. After the Court ruled 7-2 in her favor, McCorvey revealed herself as the anonymous plaintiff.
Roe v. Wade was a compromise ruling that sought to balance the privacy rights of pregnant people with the interests of the state: protecting health and “the potentiality” of human life. The Justices wrote that abortion in the first trimester was of no concern to states, but that it increased as pregnancy progressed. The later 1992 Casey v. Planned Parenthood would allow states to claim earlier interest as neonatal care improvements push the point of viability earlier in pregnancy.
After that 1973 victory, won on the basis of a doctor’s right to perform medicine more than on a patient’s right to abort, McCorvey changed her mind on many things. She said Coffee and Weddington exploited her situation with little regard for her. In the 90s antiabortion era of Newt Gingrich, McCorvey declared she no longert supported a woman’s right to choose. She openly aligned herself with the domestic terrorist group Operation Rescue, stated she was no longer a lesbian, and converted to the Catholic faith. She died last month at age 69.