Norma McCorvey Versus Jane Roe

In 1970, a homeless woman pregnant with her third child met with two lawyers at a pizzeria in Dallas. Did it matter, in the end, who Jane Roe really was?

Norma McCorvey | I Am Roe: My Life, Roe v Wade, and Freedom of Choice Harper Collins, 1994 | 19 minutes | 4,650 words

 

When journalist Andy Meisner met Norma McCorvey to work on her memoir, “she was cashing checks at the 7-Eleven” and living with her partner Connie Gonzalez in Dallas. The New York Times visited McCorvey before the book’s publication in the summer of 1994, and McCorvey showed the reporter the steel door they’d had installed after their house was shot at in 1989 — as well as her dream keeper, a closet full of prized coats, and a collection of clowns she had purchased for Gonzalez. “Once people read I Am Roe, I think they’ll understand where I’m coming from,” she told the Times. “I’m a simple woman with a ninth-grade education who wants women not to be harassed or condemned.”

A year later, McCorvey publicly converted to born-again Christianity — and later, to Roman Catholicism — and she would spent the next twenty years of her life campaigning furiously against the pro-choice movement and the abortion she never received. “Roe has been her life, but it’s no longer much of a living,” wrote Vanity Fair in 2013.

McCorvey died in Dallas of heart failure at the age of 69 on February 18, 2017. In her review of I Am Roe, Susan Cheever writes: Norma McCorvey is an angry shadow from the dark side of the American dream…That Jane Roe and Norma McCorvey are the same person is just another example of the randomness and absurdity of a politics marked by an unbridgeable gulf between myth and reality.”  I Am Roe is currently out of print, and this excerpt is courtesy of Harper Collins.

***

In February 1970 I was Norma McCorvey, a pregnant street person. A twenty-one-year-old woman in big trouble. I became Jane Roe at a corner table at Columbo’s, an Italian restaurant at Mockingbird Lane and Greenville Avenue in Dallas. I’d suggested to Linda Coffee that we meet there.

Colombo’s is gone now, which is a shame. It was an inexpensive place, clean, and made very good pizza. The tables had red-and-white checked tablecloths. Columbo’s wasn’t very big. When I walked into the place that evening, I didn’t have any trouble figuring out who was waiting for me.

Linda Coffee and Sarah Weddington, sitting together, stood out in Columbo’s. Both were older than me, and both were wearing two-piece business suits. Nice clothing, expensive looking. One of them was tall and dark and thin. Delicate. The other was short and blog and a little plump, her hair in a stiff-looking permanent. Her hairdo was old-fashioned, even for then.

I was wearing jeans, a button-down shirt tied at the waist, and sandals. I wore my bandana tied around my left leg, above the knee. That meant I didn’t have a girlfriend.

I walked over to their table. It was obvious to me even from across the room that these women hadn’t talked to a person like me for a long time, if ever. For a second, I felt like turning around and running out the door, writing the whole meeting off and starting over again. But I didn’t. Instead, I thought, Norma, they’re just as scared of you as you are of them. Looking at the nervousness and doubt in their eyes, I almost believed it.

“Hi. I’m Norma McCorvey?” I said.

The shorter blond woman came to life.

“I’m Sarah Weddington,” she said.

Sarah Weddington reached out and shook my hand. Linda introduced herself too, but it was apparent right away that Sarah was the one who would speak for both of them. For most of that meeting—in fact, for most of all of our meetings—it was Sarah who talked, and it was Sarah who listened to me with the most concentration.

“Thanks for showing up,” I said.

I don’t remember much else about the first few minutes. Small talk was awkward for us, considering how little we had in common. She told me that she and Linda were lawyers, which I already knew. The conversation died down.

I went to order our pizza and beer at the counter. While I stood there waiting, I worked up the courage to ask these women the only question I was interested in getting an answer to.

I brought the beer back to the table.

“Do you know where I can get an abortion?” I said.

“No,” said Sarah, “I don’t.”

Son of a bitch! I thought. I sat up in my chair and got ready to leave. I didn’t want to hear the adoption spiel again.

But surprisingly, Sarah didn’t begin to give it to me. Instead—and this is what kept me from leaving—she went off in another direction entirely.

“Norma, do you really want a abortion?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said.

“Why?”

“Because I don’t want this baby. I don’t even figure it’s a baby. And I figure it’s making my life pretty miserable right now.”

“Yes,” said Sarah. “Go on.”

I looked closely at her to see if what I’d said disgusted her, or made her dislike me. But no, all I could see was that she was interested in my story. And maybe, just maybe, interested in helping me somehow.

“See, Sarah,” I said, “my being pregnant, I don’t think I’ll be able to find work. And if I can’t get work I can’t take care of myself. I don’t want to be pregnant. I don’t want this thing growing inside of my body!”

By the end of my answer I was almost shouting, but Sarah didn’t seem to mind.

“Norma,” she said, “do you know what the abortion process is? Do you know what women have to go through when they get one?”

“Not really,” I admitted. “But I kind of have a general idea.”

Sarah told me, roughly, what a doctor did during a regular abortion. It sounded awful. But the truth was it wasn’t much different from what I had imagined all along.

Sarah leaned forward. “Norma, don’t you think women should have access to abortions? Safe, legal abortions?”

For the first time I realize that Sarah and Linda weren’t just ordinary lawyers. For the first time I realized how interested she was in what I was interested in. Abortions. And in my getting one, too? Despite everything, my hopes rose a little.

“Sure,” I said, “of course they should. But there aren’t any legal ones around. So I guess I’ve got to find an illegal one, don’t I?”

“No!” said Sarah and Linda together.

“Why the hell not?” I said.

I felt a little flare of anger. First they were for abortions, then they didn’t want me to have one. What kind of mind games were these women playing with me?

“Because they’re dangerous, Norma” said Sarah. “Illegal abortions are dangerous.”

“Yeah, so?” I said.

Sarah shook her head. Then this woman in her nice suit, a woman I couldn’t have imagined even going to a horror movie, began to tell me stories. Terrible stories of women who’d had illegal abortions and lived to regret them, or hadn’t lived. Women who’d gone to gangsters, or shady doctors, and had their insides torn out. And who’d gone home and bled to death.

“These women were murdered,” said Sarah. Then she told me about pregnant, unmarried women who had been so desperate to get rid of their babies that they’d tried to give themselves abortions with coat hangers, and killed themselves.

Then the worst story—one that made me shiver with fear. Sarah told me about a woman who didn’t want anyone to know she had gotten an abortion who was found in a pool of blood in a hotel room in New York City.

“They didn’t find her for a couple of days,” said Sarah. “And even when they did, she had no identification, so they didn’t know who she was. They couldn’t notify her family. All they could do was call her Jane Doe, and wait for someone to come forward and claim her body.”

Jane Doe! That could be me.

An awful picture passed through my mind. Of me, alone—no friends, no lovers, not even a name—lying dead in that hotel room. Who would claim by body?

I began to cry in front of these strangers. Smart, rich strangers, who made me feel poor and ignorant. It was awful that they were seeing me cry. Embarrassing. Sarah handed me a Kleenex from her purse.

“Yes,” she said, “it’s really unfair and inhuman, and it shouldn’t have to happen to any woman, rich or poor, anywhere.” That’s why, she said, she and Linda and some other people who thought just like them were working hard to overturn the Texas law against abortions. Their weapon was a legal project, a lawsuit, to challenge the law in the courts.

She wasn’t sure if they would be successful, but if they could do it—and it would take a lot of hard work, plus a pregnant woman like me who wanted but wasn’t able to get an abortion, to put her name on their lawsuit—then abortions would be legal in the state of Texas.

“Would that mean that somebody like me would be able to get an abortion?” I said.

“Yes,” said Sarah, “it would.”

It would? New hope began to flood through me, even though I’d been crying my eyes out a few seconds ago.

“That would be great,” I said, excited despite myself.

“Yes!” said Sarah, just as excitedly.

Sarah began describing the road the lawsuit would take through district courts, appeals courts, state courts, and federal courts. Early on, I lost the thread of what she was saying, but I kept nodding anyway. Sarah sounded so revved up, so intense, so passionate about her plans, that it was as if she were telling me her innermost personal secrets instead of describing all sorts of complicated legal business, using words that I was certain only lawyers understood.

I thought, I don’t really want to hear about courts. I’ve been in too many courts in my life. But I didn’t want to interrupt her. This woman might be able to help me.

Finally, she stopped.

“That’s great,” I said, a little too late.

But I must not have fooled anybody, because there was an awkward silence. Then somebody, either Sarah or Linda, asked me to tell them all about myself.

***

Another silence. A longer one. All about myself? What would these women think about me if I told them all about myself. I didn’t know much—anything at all, really—about their lives, but I was pretty sure they hadn’t gone to reform school, or dealt drugs, or been beaten by their husbands, or spent their days and night in gay bars.

They might be shocked—or worse, maybe disgusted—by my story. On the other hand, they seemed to like me, wanted to connect with me, in their own way.

Would they still want to help me if I told them that my private life was none of their damn business? I took a deep breath and made my decision.

Over that red-checkered tablecloth, I told them everything. Or almost everything. Louisiana and Dallas and getting away from my husband, Woody McCorvey. The whole miserable story, over pizza and a pitcher of beer, while the people at the next table laughed and whooped it up.

Sarah and Linda hung on and listened sympathetically for a while. Then I got to the part of telling them I was a lesbian. That I liked girls. That I lived with women, get it?

Saran and Linda looked at each other. They frowned. I felt flashes of fear and doubt and confusion passing between them. I realized what they were thinking: How could this woman who says she’s a lesbian gotten herself pregnant all these times? It doesn’t make sense. Maybe nothing she’s told us makes sense. But here’s what does make sense: Maybe she’s lying to us. Or maybe there’s something we don’t understand about her. Something weird. Something dangerous. Something that will hurt our lawsuit. Hurt us.

No! Inside my head, I shouted back to them: You don’t have to worry about my hurting you! I’m only dangerous to myself!

They didn’t hear me. But how could I explain it all in words? I could sense them thinking about brushing me off and finding another pregnant woman. They were sipping away from me. And with them, my only chance for an abortion.

I panicked.

“You know,” I said. “I was raped. That’s how I became pregnant with this baby.”

The horrible lie—this was the second time I’d used it—pulled at the insides of my stomach. But it got their attention. The two lawyers turned away from each other and quickly said they were sorry to hear this. That rape is a terrible thing. A crime.

“Was the rapist arrested?” asked Sarah.

“No,” I said.

“Did the police look very hard for him?

“No,” I said, sinking deeper and deeper.

“Did you report the rape to the police?”

“No,” I said, burning inside with shame.

Sarah stopped quizzing me. I tried to figure out whether she thought I was lying. This time, I couldn’t read her.

She looked at Linda again. They seemed to come to some sort of conclusion.

“Well, Norma,” she said. “it’s awful that you were raped. But actually, the Texas abortion law doesn’t make any exception for rape. So it doesn’t matter in term of our lawsuit.”

“Oh that’s too bad.” I said.

“Yes, it is,” said Sarah.

A long pause.

“Well, anyway, we would like to have you as a plaintiff in our lawsuit. Would you like to help us?”

“Sure,” I said, trying to be cool as I could. A plaintiff. What was that? Well, I’d look it up in the dictionary later. At least I hadn’t lost this chance.

***

We drank a beer toast to our lawsuit. Before she left, Sarah explained to me that they’d need me to sign some legal papers. With my own name, if I wanted to, or under a false name if I wanted to stay anonymous.

“Great,” I said.

Sarah asked me if I had any questions. I said yes, I did.

“How much will I have to pay you two for being my lawyers?” I said

Sarah smiled. “Nothing Norma. We’re doing this case pro bono.” That meant, she said, that they were doing it for free.

“Then when can I get my abortion?” I asked.

“When the case is over, if we’ve won,” said Sarah.

I was two-and-a-half months pregnant. I didn’t know how late you could get an abortion, but I did know that it was better to do it as soon as possible. How long could a lawsuit take? I remember some of the trials I’d seen on television, and the times I’d been in court myself. None of those occasions seemed to have taken much time at all.

“When will that be?” I said.

Sarah looked at me closely. I can see her sitting across from me, right now.

“It’s really impossible to tell you that Norma,” she said. “We’ll just have to let due process take its course.”

***

It was a couple of weeks until I heard from Sarah and Linda again. In the meantime I stayed at my dad’s. I didn’t tell him, or anyone else, about what happened at Columbo’s. Why risk being held up to public ridicule if the whole thing failed and we lost and I still had to have a baby? Or worse, what if it was all some kind of harebrained scheme—or even a scam?

That’s what made me decide to stay anonymous. To not put my own name on the lawsuit.

By the time Linda called me to come down to her office I was cleaning my father’s apartment several times a day, as if I was possessed by cleaning demons. I went downtown, and signed a piece of paper in front of Sarah and Linda. Not as Jane Doe—that reminded me of the woman who had been killed giving herself an illegal abortion—but as Jane Roe. The whole thing took only a few minutes. Sarah and Linda seemed very excited about it all. And so was I, despite myself, despite the feeling that I shouldn’t be getting my hopes up too high.

And that was the start of Roe v. Wade, the lawsuit that would allow me, and millions of other women, to be in control of our own destinies. To me it didn’t feel historic, just a little confusing and intimidating.

I didn’t even know who Wade was—Henry Wade, the Dallas district attorney who would be fighting the lawsuit against us—but that was all right. Sarah and Linda looked as if they knew what they were doing.

They both thanked me and said I could go home and let them do the legal work.

And then I waited.

***

I waited for two months, although it seemed much longer. To be honest, I wasn’t that comfortable talking to Linda and Sarah, so I didn’t have much contact with them.

But Henry McCluskey and I got along fine. He was the lawyer the doctor had put me in touch with, the lawyer who first told me abortions were illegal in the state of Texas, who put me in contact with Linda and Sarah. He had a mustache and dressed neatly in a jacket and tie. Henry called me every week or two, at my dad’s house, and told me that the case was moving along. He asked how I was holding up. He reminded me, every time we talked, that he would be glad to arrange an adoption if the lawsuit didn’t work.

Poor Henry. He got an earful whenever he said that. That gentleman probably heard a lot more from Jane Roe than he’d bargained for. I don’t think either of us really knew how bad a shape I was in, or the storm that was coming toward us, just over the horizon.

***

It was a strange pregnancy. It was a strange time, watching and feeling this baby—no, this thing I didn’t want happening to me—growing bigger and bigger inside me. Some days, I looked very pregnant. Others, for some reason, I didn’t look pregnant at all. I was out of work, and alone most of the day in a little apartment. I had all the time in the world to think about things.

My moods swing up and down, usually by the day, sometimes by the hour. When I was up, I was way up—I was the smartest thing on two legs. I wasn’t just sitting around feeling sorry for myself, after all—I had taken action. I’d gotten a pair of wonderful, smart, young lawyers, and I was going to win my case and be the first girl in Texas to get a legal abortion.

But that great feeling didn’t last long. When I was down, I went way down—down into the depths of doubt and despair, hour after empty hour.

“What’s actually happening, Norma?” I asked myself.

“Here’s what,” I answered. “You’re in trouble. Bad trouble. You’re four months pregnant, broke and alone. You’re a bad mother. You’ve lost touch with both of your children.”

I was lower than low. Between a rock and a hard place. If I knew anything at all, I knew I couldn’t survive having another child—I couldn’t take care of it, and I couldn’t give it up either.

My only hope was to get an abortion. But the only way I could get an abortion was by trusting these two women, women I didn’t really know, to take my case through the courts, where no good had ever come to me. I’d signed a piece of paper. So what? No piece of paper had ever helped me before.

Nothing could help me. And why? Because basically, I was no good, and that meant no good would come of anything I ever did. The lawsuit had my signature on it—that meant it was doomed.

And me? Maybe I was doomed, too. Maybe it would be best if I just ran away. Or got out of the way by throwing myself down a flight of stairs, or trying one of those fatal self-abortions that Sarah had talked about. Or maybe…

Or maybe, when the dark clouds eventually lifted a little. I should just sit here waiting. I had to move, keep ahead of the bad thoughts. I decided it was sitting in the apartment all by myself that was doing this to me. My solution wasn’t tremendously original.

***

To stay ahead of the demons I hitchhiked to Oaklawn, the part of Dallas where all the hippies hung out. This was the full flowering of the Age of Aquarius—at least for Dallas it was. Everyone wore bell-bottoms and tie-dyed T-shirts. The people on the street were passive, laid-back relaxed, calm. They shared their dope and they read me poetry they’d just written. Nobody asked me how I’d gotten pregnant or what I was going to do about it.

The next thing I knew I was sleeping in a crash pad with a bunch of friendly people who liked me very much. The next thing after that I was moving out of my father’s house. He said if that’s what I wanted to do, it was fine with him.

I discovered that if I smoked enough dope and drank enough wine, it was possible to not think about being pregnant, which was good. I just had to keep in touch with Henry. In a few weeks—it might have been three or even four—I decided the time was right to call him.

***

Henry, of course was frantic.

“Where have you been?” he said. “We’ve been trying to get in touch with you.”

“Well, Henry,” I told him, “here I am.”

Henry said that he and Linda and Sarah had been desperately looking for me everywhere. My father and everybody else he could think of contacting either couldn’t or wouldn’t tell them where I was.

Henry told me my case was going to trial right away—“Great!” I said. “That means it’s almost over!—but that before the actual trial began I would have to sign some papers, my “affidavit,” whatever that was.

I hitched a ride to Linda’s office and signed the papers. Both she and Sarah took good long looks at my bulging belly. We decided together it probably wasn’t too good an idea for me to sit in on the trial, so while they argued against Henry Wade, I went back to Oaklawn.

I was invisible again, and I stayed invisible, burying myself in drugs and alcohol as Linda and Sarah made history in my name.

***

I was six months pregnant by the time the trial was over. When I called in, Linda told me to come right over. She sounded excited. After I finally arrived, hot and tired, she said she had both good news and bad news to tell me. The good news was that we had won the case.

“That’s wonderful,” I said, holding my breath for the second part.

The bad news was that I had lost.

Even though the judges had ruled that abortion was now legal in Texas, Henry Wade had announced he would appeal the case—and until that appeal was decided, he would prosecute any doctor who performed an abortion.

“Well then, Linda, how long will the appeal take?” I asked.

“A while,” she said. “But Norma, what does it matter? An abortion has to be performed in the first twenty-four weeks of pregnancy, and it’s clearly too late for you now.”

The world stopped.

***

I’ve learned this: At horrible, tragic, but also important life-changing moments, there’s usually a moment or two of pure truth, total clarity, before the pain and anger floods in.

I had a moment like that right then. I suddenly realized this lawsuit was not really for me. It was about me, and maybe all the women who’d come before me, but it was really for all the women who were coming after me.

I looked at Linda, who was watching me sorrowfully. I supposed I’d always known I was too late. I supposed she’d always known it, also. I supposed everyone had known it. I would have to have my baby after all.

***

There’s only one good thing I can say about my anger: It is so strong, so controlling, that in the worst of times—real emergencies—it pushes me right past my worst fears. While it lasts, while I burn inside, it keeps me out of the black holes, the suffocating clouds of hopelessness, waiting to trap me. With anger, I can keep going for a little while longer, anyway.

That was probably why my third child, the Roe baby, made it into this world to be born.

By the time I left Linda’s law office, I was burning. I was furious at Sarah and Linda. Hadn’t they done this to me? Hadn’t they led me on, let me think I could get an abortion—and then, when everything was going fine for them, when they got what they wanted—they just said, “Sorry,” as they told me my world had fallen in?

And now the worst thing I feared had come to pass. This baby, which I had no way to support, was still moving inside me.

I was nothing to Sarah and Linda, nothing more than a name on a piece of paper. And without them, without their damn legal abortion, my soul was trapped and my body was in jail. I was hopeless. Worthless.

All I had, really, was my anger. My old anger at myself and my brand-new anger at these two women.

In my anger, I imagined—no, I knew!—that Sarah Weddington and Linda Coffee and all their damn friends were so right and smart and socially advantaged that just by thinking about it they could arrange an abortion for themselves, or win a court case, or do anything else they damn pleased.

Damn them all to hell, I thought. I would keep going just to spite them. It was the only reason I could think of.

Maybe I had even gone past anger. Maybe I was insane. I cried angry tears and cursed Sarah and Linda’s names. I went back to the crash pad, grabbed my duffle bag of clothes and two jugs to wine, and hitchhiked back to my father’s house. I found the spare key under the rock where he kept it and let myself in. I lay down on the couch, drank my wine, and cried myself to sleep.

The next morning I woke up and made my dad breakfast. I told him that I was broke and out of work and would need his help getting through this pregnancy.

“Sure, Norma,” he said, his eyes sad. He told me that of course he would help. He was always there for me. He said he could spare me ten dollars a week in spending money.

In a couple of days I went out looking for work. It was hopeless. No restaurant would hire a waitress who was seven months pregnant. They wouldn’t even give me a reason. Why did they need to? They just stared at my stomach and told me to check back with them in a few months. After each rejection I came home, got drunk, and pounded my fists into my belly in frustration.

I called Henry McCluskey. Henry said he’d talked to Sarah and Linda. He said he was sorry the way things had turned out, that he was worried about me, and that he was glad to hear from me. I spilled out my anger about Sarah, Linda, my mother, my ex-girlfriends, and whoever else I could think of who had dropped everything and devoted the rest of their lives to ruining mine.

Henry listened to me patiently, and when my ranting and ravings ran down, he told me he’s found a young couple who’d been trying to have their own child for five years. A happily married man and woman were willing to—no, they were excited about—adopting my baby right after it was born. I cursed him and hung up.

He called back. He told me that the couple would pay all my hospital expenses, and maybe even $25 or $50 a week to get me there. I told him to do the paperwork, to get it all arranged but not bother me with the details. I didn’t want to think about it until I had to.

By my ninth month, my stomach was huge. Bigger than it had ever been. My ankles were so swollen I could barely walk. Maybe, I thought, it was all the beer I was drinking. Maybe it was just the anger filling my body. Maybe it was my worst nightmare, getting ready to happen.

***

Excerpted from I Am Roe: My Life, Roe v Wade, and Freedom of Choice, by Norma McCorvey with Andy Meisler. Published by Harper Collins, 1994. Copyright by Norma McCorvey.

Further reading:

“At Home With Norma McCorvey: Of Roe, Dreams, and Choices,” by Alex Witchel, The New York Times, July 28, 1994.

“The Accidental Activist,” by Joshua Prager. Vanity Fair, February 2013.