Norma McCorvey Biography

Gloria Allred and Norma McCorvey at 1989 Pro Choice Rally
Bob Riha Jr / Getty Images

Dates: September 22, 1947 - February 18, 2017


In 1970, Norma McCorvey was a young, pregnant woman in Texas without the means or funds to access an abortion. She became the plaintiff "Jane Roe" in Roe v. Wade, decided in 1973, one of the most famous Supreme Court decisions of the 20th century.

Norma McCorvey's identity was hidden for another decade but, during the 1980s, the public learned about the plaintiff whose lawsuit struck down most abortion laws in the United States. In 1995, Norma McCorvey made news again when she declared she had changed to a "pro-life" stance, with newfound Christian beliefs.

Who is the woman behind these different personas?

The Roe v. Wade lawsuit

Roe v. Wade was filed in Texas in March 1970 on behalf of the named plaintiff and "all women similarly situated," typical wording for a class-action lawsuit. "Jane Roe" was the lead plaintiff of the class. Because of the time it took for the case to make its way through the courts, the decision did not come in time for Norma McCorvey to have an abortion. She gave birth to her child, whom she put up for adoption.

Sarah Weddington and Linda Coffee were the Roe v. Wade plaintiff's lawyers. They were looking for a woman who wanted an abortion, but did not have the means to obtain one. An adoption attorney introduced them to Norma McCorvey. They needed a plaintiff who would remain pregnant without traveling to another state or country where abortion was legal because they feared that if their plaintiff obtained an abortion outside of Texas, her case could be rendered moot and dropped.

At various times, Norma McCorvey has clarified that she did not consider herself an unwilling participant in the Roe v. Wade lawsuit. However, she felt that feminist activists treated her with disdain because she was a poor, blue-collar, drug-abusing woman instead of a polished, educated feminist.

Troubled Background

Norma Nelson was a high-school drop-out. She had run away from home and been sent to reform school. Her parents divorced when she was 13. She suffered abuse, met and married Elwood McCorvey at age 16, and left Texas for California.

When she returned, pregnant and frightened, her mother took her baby to raise. Norma McCorvey's second child was raised by the father of the baby with no contact from her. She initially said that her third pregnancy, the one in question at the time of Roe v. Wade, was the result of rape but years later she said she had invented the rape story in an attempt to make a stronger case for an abortion. The rape story was of little consequence to her lawyers because they wanted to establish a right to abortion for all women, not just those who had been raped.

Activist Work

After Norma McCorvey revealed that she was Jane Roe, she encountered harassment and violence. People in Texas yelled at her in grocery stores and shot at her house. She aligned herself with the pro-choice movement, even speaking at the U.S. Capitol in Washington D.C. She worked at several clinics where abortions were provided. In 1994, she wrote a book, with a ghostwriter, called I am Roe: My Life, Roe v. Wade, and Freedom of Choice.

The Conversion

In 1995, Norma McCorvey was working at a clinic in Dallas when Operation Rescue moved in next door. She allegedly struck up a friendship over cigarettes with Operation Rescue preacher Philip "Flip" Benham, who incorporates his Christian belief with his stance against abortion.

Norma McCorvey said that Flip Benham talked to her and was kind to her. She became friends with him, attended church, and was baptized. She surprised the world by going on national television to say that she now believed abortion was wrong.

Norma McCorvey had been in a lesbian relationship for years, but she eventually denounced lesbianism as well after her conversion to Christianity. Within a few years of her first book, Norma McCorvey had written a second book, Won By Love: Norma McCorvey, Jane Roe of Roe v. Wade, Speaks Out for the Unborn as She Shares Her New Conviction for Life.

Citizen McCorvey's Story

Norma McCorvey has referred to writing books as a kind of therapy, something that everyone should do. She has also stated that she feels used by crusaders on both sides of the movement. She disappointed anti-abortion activists when, despite her religious conversion, she maintained her belief that a woman should be able to have an abortion during the first trimester.

Many of those who oppose all abortions call the Roe v. Wade lawyers immoral for taking advantage of Norma McCorvey. In fact, if she had not been Roe, someone else would likely have been the plaintiff. Feminists across the nation were working for abortion rights.

Perhaps something Norma McCorvey herself said in a 1989 New York Times article can be illuminating: "'More and more, I'm the issue,' she said. 'I don't know if I should be the issue. Abortion is the issue. I never even had an abortion.'"