January 22 marks the 47th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the landmark decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in which the Court ruled that the Constitution of the United States protects a pregnant woman’s liberty to choose to have an abortion without excessive government restriction. It struck down many U.S. state and federal abortion laws and prompted an ongoing national debate about to what extent abortion should be legal, or if it should be legal at all. The case also took on who should decide the legality of abortion and what the role of religious and moral views in the politics should be.
Roe v. Wade reshaped American politics, dividing its citizens into pro-life and pro-choice camps, with grassroots movements on both sides.
When the United States first became independent, most states applied English common law to abortion. This meant it was not permitted after the start of fetal movements, usually felt 15–20 weeks after conception. Abortions became illegal in Britain in 1803, and various anti-abortion laws began to appear in the USA in the 1820s. In 1821, a Connecticut law targeted any apothecary who sold “poisons” to women for purposes of inducing an abortion, and New York made abortions a felony in 1829. Most of the early laws punished not only the doctor or abortionist, but also the woman who hired them.
The SCOTUS decision in Roe v Wade case by legalized abortion became an icon for Feminism. At first, the real “Jane Roe”, Norma McCorvey, was unwilling to take the spotlight and uncomfortable with it when she finally did.
McCorvey was 22 years old and pregnant for the third time when she sought an abortion in 1969. Abortion was illegal under Texas law except when necessary to save the mother’s life. Born in rural Louisiana, she had a difficult childhood. Her father abandoned the family. Her mother was an alcoholic. The family moved to Houston, and when she was 10 years old, McCorvey robbed a gas station and ran away with a girlfriend. They escaped to Oklahoma City, and got a motel room, but were caught when a maid walked in on the two girls kissing and reported them to the police.
McCorvey was sent to various state institutions. She later described this as the happiest time of her life. When she was 15, she was sent to live with a cousin who sexually abused. When she turned 16 years old, she left school and was working as a waitress when she met and married a sheet-metal worker. He beat her, before and after she became pregnant. She left him and gave birth to a daughter in 1965.
She began drinking heavily and came out as a lesbian. She left her baby with her mother, to take a weekend trip, and the mother charged her with abandonment, and soon afterwards made her sign what McCorvey thought were insurance papers; but the papers gave permission for her mother to adopt the child, and then McCorvey was barred from the family home.
When she was 18, she had a second child, whom she gave up for adoption. She became pregnant again in 1969. She initially claimed she had been gang-raped, thinking that might get her a legal abortion, and then sought an illegal one. She engaged Dallas lawyers Sarah Weddington and Linda Coffee. She was already five months pregnant. They wanted to challenge the law; McCorvey wanted an abortion quickly. She later claimed she had once again signed papers that she had not read, not understanding what the case would entail. She was given the pseudonym, Jane Roe, a variation of the John/Jane Doe used for unknowns, and the case was filed against the Dallas County district attorney Henry Wade, the DA in charge of the case against Lee Harvey Oswald.
McCorvey’s baby was born and given up for adoption. The SCOTUS decision, by a 7-2 majority, did not come until January 20, 1973. Justice Harry Blackmun‘s opinion, giving women the right of choice, while protecting the state’s interest in preserving life in the later stages of pregnancy, overturned anti-abortion laws in almost all 50 states. The landmark decision was a milestone in Women’s Rights. McCorvey was living quietly in Dallas with her girlfriend, Connie Gonzalez, at the time of the decision.
In the 1980s, McCorvey began to counsel women at pregnancy clinics, and in 1987 she admitted in a television interview that she had lied when she claimed to have been raped. She was decried as a ”baby-killer” and faced death threats, yet she still spoke at a huge pro-choice Washington rally in 1989. That same year Holly Hunter won an Emmy Award playing her in a television film, Roe v Wade, and Amy Madigan won a Golden Globe for playing Weddington.
Her ghost-written autobiography, I Am Roe, was published in 1994. But now McCorvey was a born-again Christian, baptized by evangelical minister Flip Benham, the head of Operation Rescue, a leading anti-abortion group. She began campaigning fiercely against abortion, claiming she had been a pawn of her Roe v Wade lawyers. McCorvey:
”They could have been nice to me instead of treating me like an idiot.”
She also stopped identifying as gay.
In 1998, she converted to Roman Catholicism, guided by Father Frank Pavone, director of Priests for Life, a pro-life organization based in Florida.
Testifying before the Senate in 1998, she said:
”I am dedicated to spending the rest of my life undoing the law that bears my name.”
She petitioned SCOTUS to undo Roe v Wade, but it rejected her appeal. She protested when President Barack Obama spoke at the University of Notre Dame in 2009 and was arrested at Senate hearings for protesting against the appointment of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court. She appeared in ads against Obama in 2012, saying: ”He murders babies’‘. McCorvey:
“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.”
A recent Gallup survey found that pro-choice or pro-life advocates were equal (at 48%). The poll results indicate that Americans have diverse and shifting opinions on the legal status of abortion. 84% of state Democratic platforms supported the right to having an abortion while 88% of state Republican platforms oppose it.
Our Failed Mail-Order Meat Salesman POTUS, who described himself as ”very pro-choice” for decades, has promised to strip Planned Parenthood of federal funding, support the Hyde Amendment limiting the use of federal money for abortions, enact legislation to ban abortion after 20 weeks and strictly nominate anti-abortion justices to SCOTUS. We know he fails to use protection when boning porn stars, and he must certainly have paid for a number of abortions through the decades. The Women Speak Out PAC unveiled a campaign this week to raise $52 million for the president’s Pro-life Coalition. The deep irony is that POTUS himself is a strong argument in favor of abortion.
McCorvey died in 2017, at 69 years old.
A new film, Roe v. Wade, about the 1973 landmark decision stars all your favorite politically conservative actors, including Jon Voight, Stacey Dash, Joey Lawrence, Greer Grammer (as Weddington), Corbin Bernsen, John Schneider, Steve Guttenberg, and Milo Yiannopoulos.