Norma McCorvey Of 'Roe V. Wade' Embodied The Complexity Of American Abortion Debate

Feb 18, 2017
Originally published on February 19, 2017 12:38 am
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The woman known as Jane Roe of the landmark Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade has died. Norma McCorvey was just 22 years old when she originally filed suit in Texas seeking the right to end a pregnancy. NPR's Rebecca Hersher has this remembrance.

REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: In 1970 Norma McCorvey was living on the street struggling with addiction when she found out she was pregnant. She spoke with NPR's Terry Gross in 1994.

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NORMA MCCORVEY: I had already had two children, and I really didn't want to bring another child into this world.

HERSHER: An adoption attorney in Dallas referred McCorvey to two young lawyers who were looking for a test case challenging Texas's ban on abortion. McCorvey agreed to be a plaintiff as long as she could remain anonymous.

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MCCORVEY: I really thought that they would take all this information down and take it to the Supreme Court and say, OK, guys, you know, Norma McCorvey down here in Texas wants to have a legal abortion. And I think you should make it legal in Texas, so we can fly back and tell her to go to the clinic. But, unfortunately, due process and the wheels of justice turn pretty slowly.

HERSHER: By the time the Supreme Court issued its landmark 1973 ruling invalidating state bans on abortion, McCorvey had already given birth. She slowly revealed her identity in the coming years, eventually becoming an outspoken advocate for abortion rights in the late 1980s. McCorvey said she was galvanized by attacks against abortion providers and women seeking abortions.

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MCCORVEY: I thought, well, I've got something to say, and I'm really feeling good about myself these days. So I'm going to start getting out there, and I'm going to start speaking up.

HERSHER: But later McCorvey's opinions changed. She began speaking out against the access to abortion and recorded testimonials like this one from 2008 for the group Virtu Media.

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MCCORVEY: However, upon knowing God, I realize that my case which legalized abortion on demand was the biggest mistake of my life.

HERSHER: Writer Joshua Prager is writing a book about Roe v. Wade. He says he has gotten to know McCorvey well over the last four years.

JOSHUA PRAGER: Norma was a unique woman - brash and outspoken and funny and irreverent and impassioned and difficult and obstinate and a lot of things in some way that befit her standing as Jane Roe.

HERSHER: Prager says McCorvey was full of apparent contradictions. She identified as a lesbian for most of her life and was a devout Catholic. McCorvey wrote an autobiography about her experience as an abortion rights advocate and approved a later biography once she had reversed her position.

PRAGER: Becoming Jane Roe - a lot of people suddenly cared about her, so she sort of saw this as an opportunity and used it, and people used her.

HERSHER: Speaking in 1994, McCorvey explained her experience as Jane Roe this way.

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MCCORVEY: I feel like a role model, you know, in one sense of the word, but when people really stop and really sit down and think about Jane Roe or Norma McCorvey, I feel like every woman who has ever been denied anything in her whole life is a Jane Roe because no woman should have to suffer all the pain and humiliations and the indignities that I've had to face.

HERSHER: Norma McCorvey died today of heart failure in Katy, Texas. She was 69 years old. Rebecca Herscher, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.