The secret life of Jane Roe: the real story behind the case that legalized abortion in the US and that the Supreme Court is reviewing now | Society

It is not true, as Scott Fitzgerald said, that there are no second acts in American lives. It was not for Norma McCorvey, a waitress from Dallas who in 1970 sued Henry Wade, the Texas district attorney, in a historic process to claim her right to abort in that state.

The case reached the Supreme Court, which in January 1973 decided, seven votes to two, in favor of the plaintiff, relying on the fourteenth amendment, which guarantees privacy. It was too late for McCorvey: he had the girl in June 1970 and put her up for adoption. Under the pseudonym with which you reported, Jane Roe, it became a symbol of the fight for women’s reproductive rights and a thrown weapon between the two sides in a bitter dispute. Even today, the sentence of Roe against Wade it is usually accompanied by this tagline: “The most controversial decision in the history of the Supreme Court.”

That decision, which constitutionally guaranteed the right to interrupt a pregnancy until week number 23, in which the viability of the fetus is set, has begun to be reviewed these days in Washington. They are discussing a law of the State of Mississippi that intends to advance that border by two months, up to 15 weeks. With three progressive and six conservative judges (half of whom appointed Donald Trump with the express aspiration of breaking that precedent), most analysts agree that Roe against Wade It has, after surviving multiple alignments of the Supreme Court for half a century, the days numbered (the resolution is expected by the end of the judicial year, in June or July). “We know what the magistrates will do. The only doubt is how they intend to explain it ”, he wrote on Saturday in The New York Times Linda Greenhouse, reference in Washington for judicial information. More than 20 states are waiting for the ban on legislating to be lifted to change their rules.

Supporters and detractors of abortion, on Wednesday at the doors of the Supreme Court of the United States, in Washington.
Supporters and detractors of abortion, on Wednesday at the doors of the Supreme Court of the United States, in Washington.CHIP SOMODEVILLA (AFP)

McCorvey was allowed to use a pseudonym in an exceptional way because he understood that the social stigma that abortion then carried outweighed the obligation to appear before the judge with a real name. In 1994, McCorvey published I Am Roe (Soy Roe), the first of his two dodgy memoir books. The following year, she was baptized into the Protestant faith, quit her job at a pregnancy termination clinic, and went over to the other side. In 1998, she became Catholic, and six years later, she unsuccessfully tried to get the Supreme Court to review her case. He died in 2017 at the age of 69.

The second act of the life of Shelley Lee Thornton, the daughter Roe did not want, began last September. His identity had been secret until the book was published. The Family Roe. An American Story (The Roe Family. An American Story), by journalist Joshua Prager, who reveals that Thornton was Roe Baby, as the media and anti-abortion associations baptized the mysterious girl.

Cover of the book 'Family Roe', by Joshua Prager
Cover of the book ‘Family Roe’, by Joshua Prager

The journalist, who worked 11 years on the project, was able to find her thanks to Connie Gonzales, a woman who for decades had a relationship, full of infidelities and other troubles, with the plaintiff, who denied her homosexuality after embracing the faith . “Gonzales told me that in the face of an imminent eviction, he was going to undo a lot of his ex’s papers,” Prager recalled Friday in a phone conversation. Among them was an interview with a Catholic bulletin that stated the exact date and place of Roe Baby’s birth. The reporter tracked down the 37 possible candidates and found the girl, then a 40-year-old woman. “At first she refused to talk to me, but in the end she agreed to tell me her story. It was a matter of perseverance and cultivating confidence ”.

The identity of the girl, known as Roe Baby, had remained a secret until it was revealed by journalist Joshua Prager last September.

Thornton, whose lawyer had not responded this Saturday to EL PAÍS’s request for an interview with her client, learned of her secret on the verge of turning 19 years old, when a tabloid reporter approached her in a supermarket parking lot and told her about it. he blurted out point-blank. “He did not want to know anything about that. In all those years he had become an example to the provided how pernicious abortion could be. But he was not interested in being a symbol of anything ”, clarifies Prager. After that, she had sporadic phone contact with her biological mother, who encouraged her to leave anonymity because she thought they could both get their share of it. He always refused to meet her in person. After stepping out of the shadows in the magazine Atlantic, stated in an interview with Abc News that she had been “relieved after years of keeping a terrible secret.”

Prager also came up with his inquiries with McCorvey’s other two daughters. The great symbol of abortion in America never really went through that: it gave all three, from different parents, up for adoption. When the journalist contacted them in 2013, neither knew of the existence of the other two.

McCorvey never seemed to find peace, not before or after inadvertently becoming a historical figure. She was born in Louisiana and grew up in a poor environment in Texas, amid the absence of a father figure and the psychological abuse of an alcoholic mother. She gave birth for the first time at the age of 16. Then another girl would arrive. When at 21, and with a history of alcoholism, drug addiction and prostitution behind her, she became pregnant with the third, she sought help. They put her in touch with Linda Coffee, a 26-year-old attorney who was looking for a plaintiff whose example would allow her to fight for the legalization of abortion.

Linda Coffee, Norma McCorvey's attorney, prepares for a case in a photograph taken in February 1972.
Linda Coffee, Norma McCorvey’s attorney, prepares for a case in a photograph taken in February 1972.Bettmann (Bettmann Archive)

Coffee is another of the fascinating characters of The Family Roe. She ended up cornered by the fame of the other attorney who handled the case, Sarah Weddington. Today she lives, according to Prager, “on government food checks in a house without heating. She is the true mother of Roe against Wade; he set up the case, did all the paperwork, took it in the first instances … What Weddington did to her, mutilate her from her story, was terrible. ” The latter, who defended the cause before the Supreme Court with only 27 years, took all the credit and ended up working as an advisor to President Jimmy Carter (1977-1981). An interview with Coffee in 1970, available on YouTube, corroborates that she was not a woman who felt comfortable under the scrutiny of the spotlight. Weddington did not want to speak to Prager about his book. Nor did he respond to the proposal of this newspaper.

McCorvey said on numerous occasions that embarking on this was “the worst mistake” of his life. Prager remembers that when her case was accepted, she was around the eighteenth week of gestation, which made it impossible to obtain a sentence in time to interrupt it, which is the only thing she was looking for. They also did not offer her the possibility of helping her to have an abortion, as they did with other poor women, who were transferred to States like California, where the governor, a certain Ronald Reagan, had legalized it in 1967.

But what angered her the most was discovering many years later that Weddington had previously had an abortion in Mexico and that she never told her. Weddington published it in a book in 1992. “That was the main reason that led her to switch sides,” explains Prager, who held dozens of interviews with the plaintiff. The journalist does not give credit to the theory that he did it for money, despite the fact that it affirmed it in the documentary AKA Jane Roe (Alias, Jane Roe, 2020): “It was out of mutual interest. I took the pasta, and they stood me up in front of the cameras and told me what to say. ” Prager recalls that McCorvey was never a reliable source, and gives as an example that for years he maintained that Roe Baby’s pregnancy was caused by a rape, until in 1987 he confessed that it was the result of a relationship with a man to whom she was united by “something that I thought it was love and it turned out not to be ”.

Sarah Weddington at a 1980 Democratic event in Hartford, Connecticut.
Sarah Weddington at a 1980 Democratic event in Hartford, Connecticut.Bettmann (Bettmann Archive)

Looking back on that historic case sheds light on his future in the Supreme Court. If all those lives were forever split in half by that judicial decision, it is because abortion continues to be, surely above race, the issue that most divides a nation with puritanical roots and fiercely polarized. For this reason, the highest judicial body in the country has now agreed to review the process. Dobbs contra la Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the only abortion clinic in Mississippi, where increasingly difficult requirements have dissuaded the rest. In lower courts, two different judges agreed with the clinic and considered unconstitutional a 2018 state law, promulgated by a Republican governor, which set the limit for abortions at 15 weeks. Dobbs is Thomas Dobbs, the Mississippi Sanitation official who appealed that decision to the Supreme Court in June of last year. Like Roe, your name can be forever associated with the judicial history of the United States.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg believed that the original sin of ‘Roe v. Wade’ is that it was based on the right to privacy, and not equality

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a feminist icon, argued before being elected in 1993 to the Supreme Court that the original sin of Roe contra Wade is that it was based on the right to privacy, and not equality, of which she was a fabulous advocate. Bader Ginsburg’s death left his position vacant in September 2020. Trump then stepped on the gas to nominate Amy Coney Barrett, who tipped the balance of the court toward a conservative supermajority unprecedented since the 1930s, before losing the election in November. After hearing the first arguments on the case on Wednesday, it seems clear that that majority is comfortable with the idea of ​​the 15 weeks, which would end half a century of precedents. Also, that some are willing to go further: they believe that it is time to completely knock down Roe against Wade has arrived. That would leave states free to decide on the reproductive rights of 166 million women.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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