Sunday 25 February 2018

Obituary: Norma McCorvey

Initially celebrated by pro-choice campaigners, she later became a fierce opponent of abortion-rights movement

Campaigner: Norma McCorvey at a pro-life demonstration in 2009. Photo: Manuel Balce Ceneta
Campaigner: Norma McCorvey at a pro-life demonstration in 2009. Photo: Manuel Balce Ceneta

Norma McCorvey, who died last weekend aged 69, was better known as Jane Roe, the plaintiff in the 1973 Supreme Court case Roe vs Wade, which, in one of the most contested decisions in US legal history, secured the right to an abortion for American women.

She became a poster-girl for the pro-choice movement. But in 1995 she announced that she had found God, left her job at a Dallas abortion clinic and signed on with Operation Rescue, a militant anti-abortion group. Yet McCorvey was never an entirely satisfactory symbol for either side of the debate.

She was born Norma Leah Nelson on September 22, 1947 in small-town Louisiana, into a dysfunctional household. Her grandmother was a prostitute and fortune-teller; her mother was a violent alcoholic who sought to raise her a Roman Catholic; her father, a television repairman who left when she was young, was a Jehovah's Witness.

Norma spent part of her adolescence in a Catholic boarding school (where she claimed to have been sexually assaulted by a nun) and at a reform school. Aged 16, she married Woody McCorvey, a sheet-metal worker who became violent when she became pregnant; she left after two months.

A daughter (Melissa) was born in 1965, but Norma developed a drinking problem and when she announced that she was a lesbian, her mother threw her out, though not before persuading Norma to sign papers giving her custody of the baby. "My mom screamed, what did a lesbian know about raising a child?; I lost my child, and my home," she told an interviewer in 1998.

Before long, Norma was living on the streets in Dallas, Texas, struggling with alcoholism, depression and drugs, and taking lovers of both sexes. Another daughter was given away for adoption in 1967.

Then, in 1969, she found she was pregnant again (she originally claimed that she had been raped, but later admitted lying). By this time, she was working in a carnival looking after freak animals. Feeling she could not face going through with another birth, she inquired about abortion, only to find that it was illegal in Texas.

She visited a back-street abortionist, but was so shocked by the squalor, she could not go through with it.

Soon afterwards, she was introduced to Sarah Weddington and Linda Coffee, lawyers who had been looking for a plaintiff to challenge the Texas ban. Legal battle was joined in 1970: Jane Roe v the Dallas district attorney, Henry Wade. The case slowly rose up the legal system, becoming a class action, until, in January 1973, the Supreme Court deemed abortion a fundamental right under the US Constitution.

McCorvey had never been asked to testify in court, and by the time the Supreme Court heard the case she had had her baby, another girl, and given her up for adoption.

For a while she disappeared from view, but during the 1980s she became active in the pro-abortion movement, working in abortion clinics and gradually letting people know that she was Jane Roe. As a result she became a target of violent abuse. In 1992, she published I Am Roe, in which she wrote of her lesbianism and attacked the "anti-choice fanatics ... trying to inflict their own religious views on others, still trying to hide their anti-woman feelings".

It was at a book signing the same year that she was first confronted by Flip Benham, national director of Operation Rescue, who accused her of being "responsible for the deaths of over 33 million children". Six months later, he opened Operation Rescue's national headquarters next to the clinic where Norma was working.

Initially she resisted any contact, but eventually started to talk to members of the organisation during smoking breaks. "They were down-to-earth, they weren't telling me I was going to fry in hell, though I'm sure they were thinking that. They were very kind to me," she recalled.

She accepted an invitation to visit Benham's church, and within a year was proclaiming herself "100pc pro-life". When Benham baptised her in a backyard swimming pool, the ceremony was filmed for national television.

Months later she announced that her relationship with her partner, Connie Gonzalez, was platonic. "I am not a lesbian. I'm just a child in Christ now," she said. In 1998 Norma announced that she had become a Roman Catholic, and the same year she published Won by Love in which she proclaimed her belief that abortion "wasn't about 'products of conception' ... It was about children being killed in their mother's wombs".

Abortion-rights activists questioned her motives and in 2013, in interviews in Vanity Fair, Flip Benham claimed that he had come to see her as someone who "just fishes for money" while Connie Gonzalez described her former lover as a "phoney".

Yet she continued to pop up at anti-abortion rallies, including in 2009, when she was arrested along with 26 others, inside the grounds of the Catholic university of Notre Dame, Indiana, protesting against the appearance of Barack Obama.

In later life she moved to live near her daughter, Melissa, who survives her.

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