The legacy of Norma McCorvey

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Left, Norma McCorvey with her lawyer Gloria Allred on the Supreme Court steps in 1989. / Photo courtesy (cc) 2017 Lorie Shaull 

Norma McCorvey, better known as the anonymous plaintiff Jane Roe in Roe v. Wade (1973)died Saturday at 69 years old from heart failure. McCorvey is a controversial figure in the abortion rights movement at best: She was the impetus for the national legalization of abortion, yet she would end up working the rest of her life to overturn the landmark Supreme Court case.

Whether you love her or hate her, there are two indisputable things about McCorvey: one, she did not have an easy life and, two, she was used by pro- and anti- abortion activists alike.

McCorvey’s obituary in The New York Times expanded more on some of the hardships she faced throughout her life:

Her early life had been a Dickensian nightmare. By her own account, she was the unwanted child of a broken home, a ninth-grade dropout who was raped repeatedly by a relative, and a homeless runaway and thief consigned to reform school. She was married at 16, divorced and left pregnant three times by different men. She had bouts of suicidal depression, she said.

Ms. McCorvey gave up her children at birth and was a cleaning woman, waitress and carnival worker. Bisexual but primarily lesbian, she sought refuge from poverty and dead-end jobs in alcohol and drugs.

She was 22 and pregnant when she joined the abortion rights struggle, claiming later that she had not really understood what it was all about. When she emerged from anonymity a decade later, strangers shrieked “baby killer” and spat at her. There were death threats. One night, shotgun blasts shattered the windows of her home.

After the Supreme Court handed down the Roe decision—which was three years after she birthed a child she gave up for adoption, the pregnancy at the center of the court case—McCorvey worked in women’s clinics, joined pro-abortion marches and was the center of countless documentaries and newspaper articles.

In the late 1990s, McCorvey was baptized as a born-again Christian after striking up an unlikely friendship with a reverend who protested the clinic she worked at.

“I am dedicated,” McCorvey said in a 1998 Senate hearing, “to spending the rest of my life undoing the law that bears my name.” In a 2012 Florida TV advertisement, she urged Americans not to vote for Barack Obama because he “murders babies.”

Truthfully, McCorvey was never the ideal spokesperson for either side of the abortion movement. But that’s because McCorvey was more than a perfect symbol to be paraded around by feminists or the religious right. She was a human being who was flawed and contradictory

And no one knew that better than McCorvey herself, who wrote (pre-conversion) in her 1994 book “I am Roe: My Life, Roe v. Wade and Freedom of Choice”:

“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.”

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