The Ambivalence of Jane Roe

By Ellen Goodman Boston Globe Newspaper Co. | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), August 18, 1995 | Go to article overview

The Ambivalence of Jane Roe


Ellen Goodman Boston Globe Newspaper Co., St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


The answering machine in her Dallas home now offers the world only the plainest of telephone messages. "There will be no press statement," it says, "there will be no more public appearances from me. I am going to be regular person Norma McCorvey."

Last week, the 47-year-old, who once described herself as "a poor, half-crazy, half-ordinary woman who'd been picked by fate to become a symbol of something much bigger and finer than herself," went through one of the most public of conversions.

McCorvey, the Roe of Roe v. Wade, the real person behind the class-action suit, the woman behind a woman's right to choose, defected to the other side. She quit her job at an abortion clinic and moved literally next door to Operation Rescue. On network television she dropped the label "pro-choice" and picked up the label "pro-life."

Both sides of this stalemated war have acted as if Norma were a flag to be captured and lost. The head of Texans United for Life said succinctly and gleefully, "The poster child has jumped off the poster." The pro-choice groups offered careful press releases supporting her and every other woman's right to decide, while privately they groaned, "We don't need this."

In real-life terms, McCorvey has become a poster child of only one thing: ambivalence. After declaring that "abortion is wrong," she said "I still believe in a woman's right to choose a safe and legal abortion" in the first trimester or if the baby is deformed. By any pollster's measure, she is staking out the middle ground full of Americans.

Still, her drama seems less political than personal. What happened to her seems to be less a change of mind than a change of heart.

"I am a rough woman," she once wrote, "born into pain and anger and raised mostly by myself." The daughter of an alcoholic, she was sexually assaulted as a teen-ager, briefly married at 16 and deserted shortly thereafter. She was a 21-year-old carnival worker pregnant for a third time when she came in contact with Sarah Weddington, the young Texas lawyer who argued the case all the way to the Supreme Court.

McCorvey told Weddington that her pregnancy was the result of rape, though it wasn't. Weddington did not tell McCorvey how to get an illegal abortion, though she knew. By the time the Roe case was decided, McCorvey's baby had been born and, like her others, was given up for adoption. …

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