Roe v. Wade Was Bigger Than Jane Roe

The news broke this week that Jane Roe, the plaintiff in Roe v. Wade, was paid by the anti-abortion right to publicly switch sides later in life. But while the news is shocking, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that no single person was responsible for the partial victory of Roe — it takes collective action to win social change.

Norma McCorvey, left, who was Jane Roe in the 1973 Roe v. Wade case, with her attorney, Gloria Allred, outside the Supreme Court in April 1989. Lorie Shaull / Wikimedia

Norma McCorvey, the Texas plaintiff whose abortion case made it to the Supreme Court as Roe v. Wade in 1973, very publicly turned against abortion in 1995, speaking and writing against it prominently for twenty years. She died in 2017. Now, in AKA Jane Roe, a documentary filmed during the last year of her life, McCorvey says she only campaigned against abortion because she was paid by right-to-lifers, and that she supports abortion rights.

“I was the big fish,” she told director Nick Sweeney of her recruitment by an anti-abortion pastor. “I think it was a mutual thing. I took their money, and they took me out in front of the cameras and told me what to say. That’s what I’d say.” The filmmakers were able to find evidence of $456,911 in payments.

If you’ve spent some time in the movement, you’ve seen this happen. An effective but cash-strapped grassroots leader abruptly stops speaking out and soon buys a house. A politician starts out championing labor rights and ends up championing corporate rights. 

Among these ordinary sellouts, McCorvey was an overachiever. She went from being an abortion rights activist, working at a clinic and living with her girlfriend, to getting baptized by an anti-abortion, anti-gay evangelical Christian pastor in a backyard swimming pool. Three years later she converted again, to Catholicism. Before a Senate subcommittee in 1998 she said she was “dedicated to spending the rest of my life undoing the law that bears my name.”

Establishment media often smear leftists as “professional protesters.” But mercenaries and scammers have always been more prevalent on the Right. The anti-abortion movement is exceptionally well-funded, from Koch-supplied lobbyists to tax-free church slush funds used to crank out books and movies and establish thousands of “Crisis Pregnancy Centers” (which outnumber real abortion clinics in some states forty to one). They have the money to purchase loyalty, if someone is willing to sell.

McCorvey was the unnamed plaintiff “Jane Roe” in the abortion suit filed against Texas in 1970 by two young feminist lawyers, Sarah Weddington and Linda Coffee. They were challenging the state law, typical at the time, that made it illegal to have an abortion unless your life was in danger. They needed a plaintiff who couldn’t afford to travel to get an abortion, someone who was unambiguously oppressed by the Texas law. In 1969, McCorvey was cashless, in her third pregnancy, and had already given one child up for adoption. Her first child, the product of an abusive marriage at sixteen, was being raised by her mother. She signed an affidavit saying that she wanted an abortion in a safe clinical setting and couldn’t afford to travel. The suit was filed in March 1970.

But the court’s decision didn’t come in time for her. McCorvey recalled the 1973 phone call from Weddington announcing they had won. “Why would I be excited? I had a baby, but I gave her away,” she said. “It’s for all the women who come after me.” McCorvey stayed anonymous until the 1980s, when she became publicly active for abortion rights. She even attended the oral arguments in the Supreme Court’s Webster case in 1989 with Weddington. Many thought the court would overturn Roe outright, allowing states to once again ban abortion. But thanks to large demonstrations and general outcry, the court only weakened it. McCorvey’s media appearances sparked death threats and, on one occasion, a shotgun blast through the window of her home. 

In 1995, McCorvey was working at a Dallas abortion clinic under siege from the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue when she was “befriended” and then “converted’ by an anti-abortion evangelical minister. The church she joined was anti-gay, so she ended her relationship with her long-time girlfriend, Connie Gonzalez, though they kept living together (an odd move if she was pretending). McCorvey became a fixture at anti-abortion protests and penned a memoir of her conversion, Won by Love. In 2005 she filed a petition at the Supreme Court seeking to overturn Roe, and seven years later she made an anti-Obama ad, saying “Do not vote for Barack Obama . . . he murders babies.”

Apparently she kept the money flowing by privately wavering. Former Operation Rescue leader Rob Shenck, who later renounced the anti-abortion movement, tells the filmmakers that they worried she might defect, so she was paid to keep her on their side. When shown McCorvey’s statement about being paid, Flip Benham, the unrepentant swimming pool baptizer, explodes: “Yeah, but she chose to be used. That’s called work, that’s what you’re paid to be doing!”

This pathetic dance of fraud and exploitation is summarized by Schenck: “There were times I wondered, is she playing us? … I knew damn well we were playing her.” He concludes, “When you do what we did to Norma, you lose your soul.” Evidently, she didn’t escape unharmed either. She constructs herself as a cold, in-control mercenary in the film, though it’s clear that’s not the whole story. “I’m a good actress,” she tells Sweeney, and then, realizing this might be interpreted as just more bullshit: “Of course I’m not acting now.” 

Partial Victory

So what are we to make of McCorvey’s “deathbed confession” as she calls it? Turns out — and I suspect she would hate this — it’s not about her. She’s neither “responsible for the deaths of 58 million babies,” as the anti-abortion right would have it, nor is she the cause of legal abortion in the United States. 

“Jane Roe” was a legal proxy for all the Texas women who wanted abortions but couldn’t obtain them; her suit was a class action “on behalf of herself and all other women similarly situated.” More than a dozen similar cases were making their way through the courts at the time, the product of a powerful Women’s Liberation Movement that produced illegal abortion referral services on every campus and held marches against male supremacy in every city. As Weddington wrote in her 1992 memoir, the victory was “the combined efforts of countless individuals.” She characterizes it as “a series of quirks” that made her, and McCorvey, famous.

Focusing on individuals may make compelling copy, in other words, but it creates the illusion that change is the province of superheroes rather than ordinary people engaging in collective action. This generates enormous pressure on individuals picked out by history, celebrated and reviled as a symbol of much larger forces.

Attributing the partial victory of Roe — a compromise with what feminists had been campaigning for, full repeal of all abortion laws and free abortion on demand — to the plaintiff, lawyers, or court also ignores the context in which the women’s liberation movement was able to advance. The establishment was weakened by a near-hysteria about high birth rates, both in the United States and abroad. While this quickly dissipated in the mid-1970s, at the time of Roe it split the establishment, including the Republican Party, on the question of birth control and abortion. 

Additionally, the United States looked embarrassingly backward: women in the Soviet Union and elsewhere were able to get abortions freely, while the capitalist “free world” forced them into an underground of butchers. In the Cold War argument over who had freedom, the United States was losing points.

Ideal Plaintiffs?

As AKA Jane Roe points out, McCorvey wasn’t the demure, reputable plaintiff the newly professionalizing abortion movement could use to appeal to their well-heeled funding base, so by the 1990s, she was sidelined. (The matching political strategy, also pitched to donors, has increasingly emphasized the “deserving” abortion cases — rape victims, cases of fatal fetal deformity, or cancer.) 

Individual plaintiffs who brought suits all over the country in 1969 and 1970 have been shuffled aside in favor of arguments that appeal to doctors’ right to practice and clinics’ right to operate. The Supreme Court case names tell the tale: Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pa. v. Casey, Whole Women’s Health vs. Hellerstedt, and the Louisiana case currently before the court, June Medical Services v. Russo. When the American Civil Liberties Union filed Chelius v. Azar, a 2017 suit to get rid of unnecessary Federal Drug Administration restrictions on abortion pills, it was on behalf of a doctor in Hawaii, Graham Chelius, rather than his patients.

No doubt McCorvey’s defection to the anti-abortion side contributed to this trend, but individual women going to court has been a successful strategy in some cases. The winning suit against the FDA to make the Morning After Pill over the counter for all ages in 2013 involved nine individual plaintiffs (of which I was one). 

Richard Hearn, who successfully sued Idaho to overturn its law against self-abortion on behalf of Jennie McCormack, noted, “Many advocates for women’s rights appear to want women’s real stories and their real-life troubles out of courts. They want plaintiffs to be MD/PhDs from Yale or Harvard. You don’t see women in abortion cases. You see doctors arguing in coats and ties.” 

Hearn defended McCormack after she was arrested for ending a twenty-week pregnancy with pills she obtained online. She faced five years in prison. After winning that case, she sued Idaho and overturned not only the 1972 law that made self-abortion illegal, she also invalidated an Idaho twenty-week limit on abortions. Yet McCormack, a single mother of three who was caught because she didn’t know what to do with the aborted fetus (the ground was frozen at the time, so she wrapped it and put it on her porch) would not have made the ideal plaintiff. No one is.