Norma McCorvey was never quite a household name, but thanks to the alter-ego she adopted in 1969, the former waitress is today regarded as one of the most influential Americans of the past half-century.
Calling herself ‘Jane Roe’ the pregnant 22-year-old from Dallas, Texas, was the young woman who chose to anonymously challenge state laws which then made abortion illegal, except in cases of rape or when a mother’s life was at risk.
Her ensuing case against Henry Wade, the local attorney general, became known as ‘Roe v Wade’. After winding its way through the US court system, it reached the US Supreme Court in 1973, where a 7-2 majority of judges decided in McCorvey’s favour.
The sensational ruling instantly legalised terminations across the USA, sparking one of the most vicious culture wars of the modern era. For the rest of her natural life, the woman at its centre, who had waived her right to privacy after the verdict, could be found squarely on its front line.
Norma McCorvey (left) formally known as ‘Jane Roe’, challenged state laws in 1969 that made abortions illegal and won after her case made it to the US Supreme Court
Dallas District Attorney, Henry Wade (pictured), was the defendant for the famous constitutional challenge
It was never a straightforward ride. For years, McCorvey was an outspoken supporter of the ‘pro-choice’ movement along with her lesbian partner Connie. But in the mid-1990s she converted to Christianity and promptly started touring the world to give tub-thumping speeches at anti-abortion protests.
At one stage, in 2004, she even went back to court in a (failed) effort to have her case overturned. Five years later, she was arrested at a Catholic university in Indiana, protesting a visit by President Obama, who she had described as a ‘child killer’ over his support for abortion rights.Then, on her deathbed in 2017, came a further remarkable twist.
Claiming she had been paid around $450,000 (£360,000) by the ‘pro-life’ lobby in exchange for her high-profile ‘conversion’ to their cause, she told a TV documentary team she never really held strong views on the issue. The whole thing, she claimed, had actually been a PR stunt. ‘I was the big fish,’ she declared. ‘It was all an act.’
Norma McCorvey’s life story, aspects of which are once more being chewed over by the Supreme Court, is disputed to this day. Supporters of Roe v Wade argue that she saved generations of women from lives blighted by unwanted offspring. Opponents claim she paved the way for the legal destruction of perhaps 58million children.
Shelley Lynn Thornton (pictured) is the unwanted daughter of Norma McCorvey, and was adopted when she was just three days old
What cannot be denied, wherever one stands, is that she makes an imperfect heroine: difficult and at times dishonest, with longstanding drug and alcohol abuse issues, and a habit of occasionally biting the hand that feeds.
Her tale begins just after the Second World War, when her father, a TV repairman, walked out on the family in Louisiana, leaving her to be raised by mother Mildred Nelson, a violent alcoholic.
Aged ten, Norma stole money from a petrol station cash register and absconded with a female friend to Oklahoma, where they tricked hotel staff into renting them a room. After being arrested, she was sent to a reform school for troubled girls and on her release aged 15, was sent to live with her mother’s cousin, whom she claimed raped her every night for three weeks.
At 16, she married a twice-divorced sheet-metal worker named Woody McCorvey and moved to Los Angeles.
But he also abused her, and after having two daughters – both were given up for adoption – she moved to Texas, where she spent part of the time living with her father and the rest living on the streets.
It was here, while working in a circus, that a casual fling saw her become pregnant again.
Unwilling to go through with the traumatic experience of giving a third child up for adoption, she decided to seek a termination. But Texas was then one of 33 of America’s 50 states that outlawed it. And while she soon found an unlicensed doctor who would carry out the procedure, she could not afford his $500 fee and felt scared, as she later put it, ‘to turn my body over to him’.
Norma McCorvey (pictured aged 35) initially avoided the spotlight after the case but later in the 1980s began giving talks and attending rallies
Help eventually came in the shape of Linda Coffee and Sarah Weddington, two recent graduates of the University of Texas law school, who agreed to sue the state on her behalf, arguing that the ban on abortions was at odds with the 14th Amendment of the US Constitution, which guarantees a citizen’s right to privacy. They won a series of victories in lower courts and by the time proceedings had reached the US Supreme Court, the case had become an international cause célèbre.
Bra-burning feminists who descended on the hearings watched with incredulity as the attorney representing Texas, Jay Floyd, kicked off proceedings by making what commentators later dubbed ‘the worst joke in legal history’. With reference to Coffee and Weddington, he said: ‘Mr Chief Justice, and may it please the court. It’s an old joke, but when a man argues against two beautiful ladies like this, they are going to have the last word.’
It set the tone for a legal confrontation that would be disastrous for the pro-life lobby, resulting in a ruling that made it illegal for individual states to outlaw abortion in the first trimester of a woman’s pregnancy (while allowing them to regulate it in the second, and outlaw it altogether in the third).
After the verdict, McCorvey retreated initially into obscurity, moving back to Dallas and quietly setting up home with Connie Gonzales, who she met in 1970 while attempting to shoplift from a store Gonzales ran.
Around 1980, she began embracing her notoriety, attending pro-abortion rallies (in exchange for speaking fees), taking jobs in abortion clinics and on one occasion appearing on stage in Washington DC with Gloria Steinem, Jane Fonda and Glenn Close.
Later in her life Norma changed her views dramatically and became a pro-life activist
The fame and money came at a cost: McCorvey promptly started to get hate mail calling her a ‘baby killer,’ while body parts from ripped-up baby dolls were scattered on her lawn. One night, a man fired a shotgun from a passing lorry, shattering her windows.
Meanwhile she began to feel resentment towards largely middle-class activists in the feminist movement who, according to a biographer, looked down at her working-class background.
But then, in 1995, members of Operation Rescue, an anti-abortion group, rented a house next to the clinic where she worked and set about befriending her. They began showing McCorvey posters depicting foetal development.
‘The [baby’s] progression was so obvious,’ she later recalled. ‘It hurt my heart, just looking at them. Finally it dawned on me. “Norma” I said to myself. “They’re right”.’
Then in 1995 she was baptised and in one of the most dramatic U-turns imaginable, moved out the clinic and into the anti-abortion HQ next door.
She spent subsequent years gathering testimonies from women who say that having an abortion ruined their life and insisting to evangelical allies that her relationship with Gonzales, with whom she lived until 2006, was entirely platonic.
But by 2010 she had fallen out with the anti-abortion lobby and her deathbed claim that she had only worked with them in order to secretly make money meant her reputation in conservative circles became as tarnished as it by then was in liberal ones.
Among those who maintain a dim view of McCorvey to this day is the woman, or rather child, at the centre of Roe v Wade. Shelley Lynn Thornton was the result of the pregnancy that sparked the initial lawsuit since (due to the speed at which the wheels of justice turn) the verdict came too late for McCorvey to take advantage of it.
Put up for adoption at three days old, she spoke to her biological mother via telephone in the late 2000s, but refused to meet face-to-face, concluding she would be used for PR purposes. She was finally identified last year after giving an interview to the Atlantic.
‘She didn’t deserve to meet me,’ Thornton said. ‘She never did anything to get that privilege back. She never expressed any genuine feeling for me or remorse for doing the things she did…
‘She wasn’t sorry, about giving me away or anything. I would never, ever thank her for not aborting me.’