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Watching Norma: The Troubled Life of Women in the Center of Roe v. Wade

Norma McCorvey, the Jane Roe at the center of Roe v. Wade, she was an imperfect claimant.

When she became engaged to Roe as a young single woman in Dallas, she didn’t think about fighting for reproductive rights. She was barely getting by as a waitress, she had twice given birth to children given up for adoption and simply wanted an abortion. She later lied about how she got pregnant and said that she had been raped. When, more than a decade later, she came clean and wanted to truly join the movement she had come to represent, her leaders denied her meaningful participation in her protests and rallies.

“I think they’re embarrassed,” McCorvey told Texas Monthly in 1993. “They’d like me to have a college education, with poise and little white gloves.”

Still, Roe remained central to McCorvey’s life, linked to her by those same two crosscurrents that would frame the abortion debate in the United States: religion and sex.

McCorvey had hundreds of partners, almost all of them women, he said. She also worked for a time as a prostitute in Dallas. But she had been raised as a Jehovah’s Witness and saw sex as a sin. That her lawsuit had legalized her abortion left her fearing for her soul. That was part of the reason she was born back in 1995, she said, to better join the fight against Roe.

Still, despite his public reversal, McCorvey, like most Americans now, felt abortion should be legal during the first trimester. He shared this in the first interview he gave, days after Roe, and he shared it again in his last, speaking to me from a hospital bed at the end of his life. (During my decade of research for “The Family Roe,” a book about Roe and his claimant, I spent hundreds of hours interviewing McCorvey.)

Her private papers, which I found in her ex-partner’s garage just before the house was foreclosed on, offer a first-hand view of McCorvey as she truly was: a woman whose torments and ambivalences about abortion mirror those divide the country, and who remains relevant in the new post-Roe world.

Here is a sample of the material.

McCorvey was sent to a Catholic boarding school and later, at age 16, to a state boarding school for “delinquent girls.” She liked being away from her family and she had a number of girlfriends. But her mother, Mary Sandefur, beat her up for being gay, Sandefur said in an interview, and Ella McCorvey came to see her sex and sexuality as sinful and illicit. Years after becoming pregnant for the third time and seeking an abortion, she told people that she had been raped, presenting herself not as a sinner but as a victim.

McCorvey was the third consecutive generation in her family to become pregnant out of wedlock, according to documents and interviews with family members. Her grandmother married quickly, while her mother had to leave town, give birth in secret, and hand her child over to her parents.

McCorvey worked many jobs to survive: a waitress and drug dealer, a prostitute and a painter, a respiratory therapist and a bond broker. Money was a constant struggle. And when, in 1969, she became pregnant and found an unlicensed doctor who would perform an abortion, she couldn’t afford her $500 fee or the cost of flying to California, where abortion was legal.

Over time, McCorvey turned his profession as a plaintiff into a career and repeatedly changed his public stance, depending on his audience. But his private opinion on abortion did not change: the day after his Christian revival, as well as at the end of his life, he repeated what he had first told The Baptist Press in 1973: that abortion should be legal. until the first trimester. .

Leaders of the abortion rights movement were understandably uncomfortable when, in 1987, McCorvey admitted to lying about being raped. But even after she apologized and spent years learning about Roe and abortion, she was nearly shunned: “scorned, shunned, snubbed, discredited and ostracized,” in the words of Barbara Ellis, an activist in the movement.

In April 1970, Linda Coffee and Sarah Weddington, the two attorneys representing McCorvey, amended Roe v. Wade to make it a class action lawsuit not only on her behalf, they wrote, but also for “all other women in similar situations.” They detailed that situation in an affidavit, stating, among other things, that her pseudonymous plaintiff could not afford to travel to where abortion was legal and safe.

McCorvey found solace in religion, particularly the patron saints and rosaries that became a part of her daily life after she converted to Catholicism in 1998. But she also told a filmmaker in 1995 that if the right to abortion would have accepted it, would never have left it. What upset her most, she said, was learning in 1992 that Ella Weddington’s attorney, who had not tried to help McCorvey get an abortion, had done it herself.

This was completely false. McCorvey first spoke of being raped in a Good Housekeeping article published in June 1973, five months after Roe’s decision. Her attorney, Coffee, said in an interview that the article was the first time she and her co-lawyer had learned of McCorvey’s rape allegations.

Joshua Prager is the author of “The Family Roe: An American Story”, a dual biography of Roe v. Wade and his claimant. The book was a finalist for the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction.

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