A Retrospective on Norma McCorvey: The “Jane Roe” behind Roe V. Wade

Over forty years ago. the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a “Jane Roe” in the precedent-setting case, Roe v. Wade.

The landmark decision ruled the Texas law banning abortion unconstitutional in a 7-2 vote. Using the fourteenth amendment as the basis of the decision, the Court found that the right of a woman to have or not have a child is protected by the due process clause. The majority opinion also rejected the idea of personhood of an unborn child, excluding a fetus from the protections afforded under the fourteenth amendment. As result of the ruling bans across the nation were overturned, marking the legalization of abortion throughout the country.

Aside from the momentous legal consequences of Roe v. Wade, the case set forward a new age for American society. Ever since Supreme Court handed down the verdict in 1973, the public has been sharply divided along the pro-life and pro-choice movements. Vehement opposition to the legalization of abortion mobilized across the United States. In the immediate aftermath, scores of political officials were elected with the promise to overturn Roe v. Wade, including President Ronald Reagan.

While the Roe v. Wade has survived the last forty years, it still is not universally supported. According to a poll conducted by Gallup in 2013, just over fifty percent of Americans do not want Roe V. Wade to be overturned, making the decision just as controversial as ever. If the last few decades are a prognosticator of the future, the 1973 Supreme Court ruling will continue to be a polarizing issue.

Behind one of the most divisive court cases in American history lies Norma McCorvey, the plaintiff who challenged the Texas law prohibiting abortion. McCorvey passed away Saturday February 28th at the age of 69. History will remember her as a complicated figure who became the center of society’s debate on abortion.

Born to and alcoholic mother and absent father, McCorvey experienced many hardships during her childhood. By the time she was 21, McCorvey was pregnant with her third child. Abortion was illegal in Texas at the time and  McCorvey could not afford to leave the state. As a result, she sued the acting Dallas District Attorney Henry Wade under the pseudonym “Jane Roe”.

The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, where the court ruled in her favor and, as a result, “Jane Roe” became the poster child for the pro-choice movement for decades to come. After a decade of anonymity, Norma McCorvey chose to reveal her identity to the public. As a sign of the volatility surrounding the topic of abortion, McCorvey was threatened by pro-life extremists. She, like many people associated with abortion, lived with the fear of violent retaliations.

As time passed, the icon of the pro-choice movement would eventually switch sides. In the early 1990s, McCorvey was a fervent believer in the pro-choice cause. She lent her time to work at a women’s clinic in Dallas. After 1995, her advocacy for the pro-choice cause came to an end. Months of contact with the Evangelical minister Philip Benham culminated with McCorvey being baptized and converted to Christianity.

From then on McCorvey began to work to overturn the case that bears her name. She went to court in an attempt overturn the Supreme Court case, but was dismissed by the fifth circuit appeals court. In addition to legal action, McCorvey has become a regular at anti-abortion rallies and outspoken in her opposition to pro-choice candidates.

By the time of her passing, Norma McCorvey had played both sides of one of most contentious social issues of last century. McCorvey left a mark on the American psyche that will stay in the memories of many for years to come.

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