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What the Culture Wars Did to Norma McCorvey

The life of the anonymous plaintiff in Roe v. Wade is a lesson in what happens when a complex individual becomes a political pawn.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Norma McCorvey never had an abortion. When she found herself pregnant for the third time in 1969, at 22, she went to an illegal clinic in Dallas, but found that it had been shut down. She tried getting a legal abortion by claiming, falsely, that her pregnancy was the result of a gang rape; that attempt failed, and she later recanted. Eventually, she was directed to two lawyers, Sarah Weddington and Linda Coffee, who had her sign an affidavit that she did not read. By this point, she was five months pregnant. She had little contact with Weddington and Coffee after that, and four months later she gave birth to a baby girl, who was put up for adoption. But signing the affidavit transformed her into Jane Roe, the anonymous plaintiff whose case, Roe v. Wade, brought down statewide bans on first trimester abortions, established a constitutional right to privacy under the Fourteenth Amendment, and ignited the most explosive debate of the culture wars. 

McCorvey died on Saturday at an assisted living facility in Katy, Texas. She was 69. It is hard to imagine a life more full of contradiction and pain than hers. After a horrific early life, she was rocketed to fame by the explosive aftermath of the 1973 Supreme Court decision, becoming a symbol, first, to the pro-choice movement, standing in for defiant American women who opposed their oppression, and then, after a religious conversion, for pro-life forces who saw themselves as protecting a besieged moral code. She never quite fit into either of these roles: Her own life and political trajectory defied easy categorization. But she serves as an illustrative example of the ways that our cultural politics shoehorn complex lives into neat dichotomies of oppressed versus oppressor, secular versus religious, liberal versus conservative. 

McCorvey’s own birth was an accident: She was the ninth child of poor rural parents who could not afford her and soon divorced. She was raped repeatedly by her mother’s cousin as a child, and by her own account she would deliberately get caught stealing from local stores so that she would be sent to reform school, which she preferred to her family home. “I beat the fuck out of her,” her mother Mary told Vanity Fair in 2013. McCorvey was married at 16 to a man who left her when she became pregnant, and when the child was born her mother tricked her into relinquishing custody, claiming that the forms she signed were for “insurance.” She became homeless, and struggled with alcohol, drugs, and suicidal depression. The affidavit she signed for Weddington and Coffee said that she wanted an abortion because she was “unemployable.” By the time the decision came down, she had long since lost touch with the lawyers. 

In the 1980s, spurred by violent attacks on abortion providers, McCorvey revealed herself as Jane Roe. She received death threats, and was spat at on the street. By this time McCorvey identified as a lesbian, and was living in Dallas with Connie Gonzales, the woman who would remain her partner for 35 years. She attended marches, gave interviews on abortion rights for network TV, and worked for a time as a counselor at a women’s clinic. 

But she felt that the leadership of the pro-choice movement kept her at arm’s length. The women’s movement was by then an established, PR-conscious network of mainstream organizations that aimed for mass appeal, and they were aware that McCorvey was not an ideal representative. She began to feel at odds with mainstream feminism, rejected for her lesbianism, her class status, her initial lie about being raped, and her past flirtations with drug dealing and occult religions. In photographs from that era, she looks uncomfortable at pro-choice rallies. She slouches and frowns; she is dour-faced and plain in a housedress next to civil rights attorney Gloria Allred, who wears a full face of garish ’80s makeup and dramatic shoulder pads.  

“Women used to come up to me all the time and say, ‘Oh Norma, I want to thank you, if it wasn’t for you I wouldn’t have finished college,’ or, ‘If it hadn’t been for you, I wouldn’t have done this,’” she said in a 1995 interview with ABC News. “And I used to look at them and I envied them, because they got to choose, they had the right to choose. And I never had the right to choose.” She never managed to climb out of poverty, either, although the attention brought by the decision garnered her two book deals and many interviews and speaking engagements. She began to feel increasingly embittered towards a feminist movement whose leaders were dramatically wealthier, better educated, and divorced from the cultural milieu of the working-class South. She found herself with less and less in common with those who most loudly claimed her cause. 

In 1994, she published her first memoir, I Am Roe. At a book signing, the national director of the anti-abortion extremist group Operation Rescue, the pastor Flip Benham, appeared with a group of protesters, and shouted at McCorvey that she was “responsible for the deaths of 33 million children.” Benham was based in a suburb of Dallas, and opened Operation Rescue’s headquarters across the street from the abortion clinic where McCorvey was working. She initially refused to talk to him, but eventually took a liking to Benham, and began going to visit him at the Operation Rescue offices during her smoke breaks. She chided him for being too uptight. “What you need is to go to a Beach Boys concert,” she once joked. “Yes, Miss Norma,” he replied, “I haven’t been to a Beach Boys concert since 1976.” A friendship was born. 

Benham baptized McCorvey in front of network TV cameras in 1995, in a backyard swimming pool in Dallas. She wore overalls. It was a major coup for the pro-life movement, who had now captured a major symbol of their opponents and made her their own. At first glance, it seemed like a fit for McCorvey, too. The brand of Evangelical Christianity that Benham initiated her into prized sinners and converts as signs of God’s forgiveness, and in their hands the more sordid parts of her past became plot points in a story of redemption, not public relations liabilities to be swept under the rug. “We want very much for her to be absolutely who God made her,” Benham said in a TV interview on the occasion of McCorvey’s baptism. “It’s not who we want her to be, not what we force on her. She can just be beautifully, supernaturally Norma.”  The pro-choice movement shrugged. “She wasn’t one of the leaders of the movement,” said Susan Hill of the National Women’s Health Organization.

McCorvey spent the rest of her life in pro-life activism, gradually evolving a more anti-choice stance on issues such as rape, incest, and abortions in the first trimester. She published a second memoir, Won by Love, in 1997. McCorvey converted from Protestantism to Roman Catholicism a few months thereafter, claiming that she had heard God tell her to join the “Mother Church.” In 1996, she had publicly renounced homosexuality as sinful, although she continued to live with Gonzales in Dallas until 2004. She sought out the spotlight, preferring high-profile anti-abortion actions in Washington. In 2009, she dumped a box full of tiny pink plastic fetuses onto a table in the offices of thenHouse Speaker Nancy Pelosi. In 2005, she petitioned the Supreme Court to overturn Roe, claiming standing to sue as one of the original litigants. When Barack Obama ran for re-election in 2012, she campaigned passionately against him. “He murders babies,” she said.

Norma McCorvey had a ninth-grade education, a drug addiction, and a history of being abused, abandoned, and unloved. It is not difficult to see why she was seen as an enticing mark for both sides of the abortion debate. Her desire for justice was perhaps outweighed by her need to be accepted; the grief she felt for the life she had been denied gave way to a grief for the children she believed had been killed by abortion. Now it is our uneasy task to grieve for her.