Reflecting on the death of ‘Jane Roe,’ symbol of pro-choice movement

Caitlin Nestler

Student Voice Editor

The 1973 landmark Supreme Court decision, Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion throughout the United States, is widely known. Roe v. Wade was always symbolic to me; I never really put much thought into who “Roe” was or what role she played in the case, until her death on Feb. 18 at the age of 69.

The real name of “Jane Roe” was Norma McCorvey. Throughout her life she fell on both sides of the abortion debate, eventually strongly asserting herself as pro-life, despite the case to which her pseudonym is attached.

I always assumed that the woman in Roe v. Wade was a pioneer, a champion for women’s rights, and an active member of the pro-choice movement. It was more by chance, however, that McCorvey ended up being part of such an important Supreme Court ruling.

McCorvey had a hard childhood and early adulthood, according to news reports. She was pregnant twice at a young age. She had given one child up for adoption and the other was in the care of her mother. In 1994, McCorvey told The New York Times that when she told her mother she preferred women over men, her mother kidnapped the child and tricked her into signing adoption papers.

In 1969, at the age of 22, McCorvey was pregnant for the third time. She wasn’t able to obtain an abortion, as it was illegal in her home state of Texas, unless the life of the mother was at risk. Two lawyers wanted to challenge the Texas law, and they used a pregnant McCorvey to do it. McCorvey originally claimed her pregnancy was the result of a rape, but later admitted she made that part up, according to the Washington Post.

In the years it took the case to make its way to the Supreme Court, McCorvey gave birth and subsequently gave up her child for adoption. Consequently, she never actually had an abortion.

In the many stories written about her over the years, and since her death, it is clear that McCorvey was not an active participant in her case. During the case, and for more than 10 years after, few even knew her real name. She never stepped foot in the courtroom. She was never asked to testify. She read about the outcome of the case in a newspaper.

For years McCorvey, who identified both as bisexual and a lesbian, according to The New York Times, participated in the pro-choice movement. She attended rallies and worked in a women’s clinic that performed abortions. However, McCorvey reversed her position later in life and became a born-again Christian, later a born-again Catholic and an active member of the pro-life movement, according to news reports.

Flip Benham, who opened an office for his anti-abortion organization, Operation Rescue, next to the clinic where McCorvey was working, is credited with bringing her to the other side.

Once she changed her mind, McCorvey fought hard against abortion. She worked for Operation Rescue, an organization dating back to 1986 that describes itself on its website as “one of the leading pro-life Christian activist organizations in the nation.” Its goal is to take “direct action to restore legal personhood to the pre-born and stop abortion in obedience to biblical mandates.” The ideals of Operation Rescue couldn’t be further from what McCorvey had previously been fighting for and what countless women fought for in her name.

Traci Tong, of Public Radio International, interviewed McCorvey many times over the years. After her death, Tong wrote that she waited in the car while McCorvey went in to get baptized; although, at the time, Tong was unaware of what was happening. McCorvey came out of the house belonging to Benham and informed Tong that she was no longer “in favor of abortion.” Benham had baptized her in his pool.

Tong insinuated that McCorvey’s conversion from pro-choice to pro-life might have had more to do with attention seeking than an actual change of heart. She wrote, “In the back of my mind I thought of the real reasons for changing her mind. She wasn’t earning the money she felt she deserved because of her case. And she wasn’t getting the media attention that had consumed her since her name became public. Her story had already been told. Maybe she felt no one was interested.”

Regardless of her personal opinions on abortion, or her reasons for choosing either side, McCorvey will forever be a symbol for the famous case that legalized abortion for women throughout the country.

Millions of women have been able to obtain safe abortions because a young 22-year-old woman was unable to.

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