Biography of Norma McCorvey, 'Roe' in the Roe v. Wade Case

She later converted from a pro-choice to an antiabortion viewpoint

Gloria Allred and Norma McCorvey in 1989
Bob Riha Jr / Getty Images

Norma McCorvey (September 22, 1947–February 18, 2017) was a young pregnant woman in Texas in 1970 without the means or funds to have an abortion. She became the plaintiff known as "Jane Roe" in Roe v. Wade, which was decided in 1973 and became one of the most famous Supreme Court decisions of the 20th century.

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, McCorvey made news again when she declared she had changed to a pro-life stance, with newfound Christian beliefs.

Fast Facts: Norma McCorvey

  • Known For: She was "Roe" in the famous Supreme Court abortion case Roe. v. Wade.
  • Also Known As: Norma Leah Nelson, Jane Roe
  • Born: Sept. 22, 1947 in Simmesport, Louisiana
  • Parents: Mary and Olin Nelson
  • Died: Feb. 18, 2017 in Katy, Texas
  • Published Works: I Am Roe (1994), Won by Love (1997)
  • Spouse: Elwood McCorvey (m. 1963–1965)
  • Children: Melissa (Nothing is publicly known of the two children McCorvey gave up for adoption.)
  • Notable Quote: “I wasn’t the wrong person to become Jane Roe. I wasn’t the right person to become Jane Roe. I was just the person who became Jane Roe, of Roe v. Wade. And my life story, warts and all, was a little piece of history.”

Early Years

McCorvey was born on Sept. 22, 1947, as Norma Nelson to Mary and Olin Nelson. McCorvey ran away from home at one point and, after returning, was sent to reform school. After the family moved to Houston, her parents divorced when she was 13. McCorvey 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. McCorvey's second child was raised by the father of the baby with no contact from her. McCorvey 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.

Roe v. Wade

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 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 the lawyers to 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, 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.

Activist Work

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

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, McCorvey wrote 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."

Later Years and Death

In her later years, McCorvey was nearly homeless, relying on “free room and board from strangers," says Joshua Prager, who wrote an extensive story about her published in Vanity Fair in February 2013.

McCorvey eventually ended up in an assisted-living facility in Katy, Texas, where she died of heart failure on Feb. 17, 2017, at age 69, according to Prager, who was working on a book about her at the time of her death.

Legacy

Since the Roe v. Wade ruling, "about 50 million legal abortions have been performed in the United States, although later court decisions and new state and federal laws have imposed restrictions, and abortions have declined with the wide use of contraceptives," according to McCorvey's obituary published in The New York Times.

Many of those who oppose abortions have called the Roe v. Wade lawyers immoral, saying that they took advantage of 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 at the time.

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

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