Roe V. Roe: The Woman Behind the Famous Abortion Case: Newsweek, 1985

Norma McCorvey, the 'Jane Roe' of Roe v. Wade, is surrounded by young people January 27, 2001 during an anti-abortion rally in Austin, Texas. The rally called for an end to legal abortions allowed by the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court Roe V. Wade decision. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Newsmakers) Joe Raedle/Newsmakers

On June 22, Norma McCorvey awoke in the middle of the night and felt a spiritual presence. She tried to shake it off by getting a Coke. But when she sat down in the dining room, she felt the spirit pushing down on her, almost shoving her to the table. The presence, she concluded, was Evil. "I denounce you, Satan," she found herself declaring. "The Lord Jesus Christ is sitting right here. I banish you from my house." The relief was immediate. She slept until 11 the next morning.

Now, she says, maybe Satan will stop bothering her. With cameras clicking, McCorvey, known to most as the Jane Roe of Roe v. Wade, was baptized by Flip Ben-ham, the flamboyant national director of Operation Rescue, the militant anti-abortion group. Around the country, pro-life leaders hailed the historic moment: the symbol of abortion rights had defected. Anchors on the "700 Club" TV show led their viewers in thankful prayer. "The poster child has jumped off the poster," said Bill Price, the head of the Dallas-based Texans United for Life.

But McCorvey's conversion is not quite what her new friends think it is. "I haven't changed sides all the way," she told NEWSWEEK in lengthy interviews last week. Although outraged by abortions performed late in pregnancy, she believes that they should be legal in the first three months, a view fundamentally at odds with Operation Rescue doctrine. In the end, she will probably fit no more comfortably with right-to-life activists than she did with the prochoice side. "This is not pro-choice," she says of her philosophy. "It is not pro-life. It is pro-Norma."

McCorvey has for years been tormented, both by her decision to seek an abortion in 1969 and by her special role in history. She has alternately craved anonymity and attention. She has used the abortion issue to craft an identity far grander than she could have imagined, and she in turn has been used-by pro-choice advocates, the media, Hollywood and now the right-to-life movement. Her personal journey has been painful and messy. In other words, she truly is a symbol of the abortion issue.

When lawyers Sarah Weddington and Linda Coffee asked her in 1969 to become the plaintiff in their class-action suit, McCorvey had to confront a breathtaking paradox: to help win the right for abortion, she couldn't have one. (If she weren't pregnant, she'd have no legal standing to demand an abortion.) So MeCorvey carried the pregnancy to term. A hospital nurse, not realizing that McCorvey intended to place the baby for adoption, handed it to her. McCorvey held the daughter she had tried to abort. From that day, she felt conflicted about abortion. "I got to thinking, 'Is it true what people are saying that abortion is killing babies? Is it true?' " She remained anonymous in part because she felt so guilty. Her mother, virulently anti-abortion, kept asking how she could sleep at night, knowing she'd been "murdering little babies." McCorvey would drink herself to sleep, she says, only to be haunted by nightmares of live infants being carved up in front of her.

Starting around 1984, a decade after the Supreme Court decision, she began slowly to acknowledge that she was Jane Roe. She gave a few interviews about the case, even claiming she'd been impregnated during a gang rape. Her picture began appearing in newspapers and she was surprised at how supportive people were once she got outside Dallas. She began to feel comfortable with what she'd done. She concluded that a woman should have the right to an abortion--not so much because of the abstract principle of choice but because she thought there were too many unwanted children in the world. "I thought about these poor children who I've personally seen parked in front of just dives--hungry, dirty, neglected and abused. If these people don't want these children, why do they have them?"

Being Jane Roe gave McCorvey a sense of importance. Her life, by her account, was not amounting to much: a runaway, thief, alcoholic and drug addict, she'd already had two other kids. She dropped out of school in ninth grade and was drifting from state to state. Now she was part of history. She began referring to the Roe v. Wade case as "my law." She became a celebrity in pro-choice circles, getting standing ovations when she spoke on college campuses. (She wasn't a savvy political polemicist, confusing "the donkeys and the elephants" and mixing up actor Carroll O'Connor and Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.) McCorvey was thrilled when Hollywood producers bought the rights to her life story: she was going to be played by Holly Hunter.

But the attention made her heartsick, too. There were things about her that people didn't know; things that might disgust them. She had not, in fact, been raped. She had made up that story to get sympathy and increase the odds of getting an abortion. She'd been in reform school three times. And she was a lesbian.

By 1989, she had gone public with these secrets. Emotionally unburdened, she felt ready to take an even more active role in the pro-choice movement. But some mainstream leaders didn't want her. Irreverent, uneducated and hot-tempered, she hardly fit in with the polished, Ivy League leadership. In 1989, for example, she was prevented from speaking at a major Washington march commemorating the Roe v. Wade decision. She was "just some anonymous person who suddenly emerges," said Sheri O'Dell of the National Organization for Women. Considering that her house and ear had recently been hit by gunfire, McCorvey couldn't believe she was not considered a genuine feminist.

Still, she remained avidly pro-choice, and in 1991 decided to put herself on the front lines, taking a job at a Dallas abortion clinic. While she felt good about helping women, she was sickened by some of what she saw. "Have you ever seen a second-trimester abortion? It's a baby. It's got a face and a body, and they put him in a freezer and a little container." Soon after, she says, she left that clinic to work at another one called A Choice for Women.

On March 31, 1995, Operation Rescue moved in next door. "Oy way!" McCorvey declared with a Texas twang. Thursday through Saturday, when the clinic offered abortion services, Operation Rescue volunteers would shout "Baby killer!" and other bits of "sidewalk counseling" at women patients. McCorvey fought back with characteristic pugnacity. She called the cops. She spat in a pro-lifer's face.

Yet on other days, a strange detente developed. To McCorvey, the anti-abortion activists seemed polite, warm and endearing. She took a liking to Flip Benham, the blow-dried minister who ran the operation. They sat on a nearby bench and chatted; she enjoyed hearing about his life before he found God, when he'd been a heavy boozer and tarouser. She called Benham "Flipper"; he called her "Miss Norma." She was spiritually open-minded, having been at various times influenced by Jehovah's Witness, Roman Catholicism, New Age teachings and the occult. Benham shared with her passages from the Bible, and she began going to church regularly. A few weeks ago she told the youth minister she wanted to be baptized. Last Tuesday she and Benham went to a friend's house nearby. He submerged her head in a pool and declared, "I baptize you in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit."

The reaction from pro-choice leaders seemed to validate McCorvey's suspicions about their elitism. "All Jane Roe did was sign a one-page affidavit," Sarah Weddington told NEWSWEEK. "She was pregnant and didn't want to be. That was her total involvement in the case." In fact, Weddington said, if she had it to do over again she wouldn't use McCorvey as the plaintiff: "I'm sorry I went to Dallas."

McCorvey believes the pro-life movement won't treat her as badly. "I won't let 'em," she says, "I've already been exploited enough to last me a lifetime." But Operation Rescue officials are already having trouble accepting her as she is. When she went off script by saying she favored first-trimester abortion rights, spokeswoman Ronda Mackey said, "Her theology isn't straight yet. She's like a new infant; a new baby doesn't understand about the world around it." And when asked about McCorvey's longtime homosexual relationship, Benham implied that this problem would be solved in due time. "You just watch what God does in her life as she follows him."

Not likely. She has been in a relationship with the same woman, Connie Gonzales, for 26 years. "I might walk away from Jesus before I'd walk away from Connie," McCorvey says. And it's hard to see the foulmouthed McCorvey getting comfortable with the born-again lingo. "Lord Jesus Christ this, and Lord Jesus Christ that," she says. "After a while, I just get a little tired of hearing about it."

Few people have been forced to confront the moral dimensions of their behavior as Norma McCorvey has. "I was worried about salvation. I can now go to sleep at night knowing that I'm not going to be responsible for a second-trimester abortion." Still, she says, "I believe in the woman's right to choose. I'm like a lot of people. I'm in the mushy middle."