LOS ANGELES – Norma McCorvey spent so many years hiding her identity, she has trouble convincing people she exists.
“I’m Jane Roe,” she proudly told activists at the abortion rights march in April in Washington, D C. Many walked away from her thinking she was some kind of crank.
“It’s Jane Roe! Jane Roe!” she snapped at a stranger in a hotel, after he asked if she was “that Jane Doe person.”
McCorvey, the Texas woman who filed the lawsuit that led to the Supreme Court’s landmark abortion ruling in 1973, wanted to speak at the Washington rally. Leaders rejected her request, saying they did not know enough about her. She managed, though, to get invited to the VIP tent, where she met Gloria Allred, a well-known feminist attorney who’d never heard of her but quickly changed McCorvey’s life.
Now, McCorvey, 41, appears at fund-raisers and rallies, delivering speeches to claim her place in history.
As the living symbol of the abortion rights movement, McCorvey wants to do everything she can to protect Roe v. Wade, which she calls “my law.” With Allred’s help, the shy, fragile woman, who now works as a cleaning lady, is making more public appearances than ever, and soon may embark on a speaking tour to promote abortion rights nationwide.
Still, she is a reluctant witness to history.
Although many are eager to hear her story, McCorvey does not like to talk about her troubles. It is a painful saga of a poor, uneducated divorced woman who never had a chance to raise any of her three children.
“I try not to think about ugly things,” she said. “I try to block them out.”
McCorvey is a wisp of a woman, petite and gaunt, with cheekbones that jut out of her long, narrow face, and dark hair so closely cropped it is not much longer than a crew cut. She speaks softly and is often hard to hear. Before she answers questions, she often takes long pauses, her fingers trembling slightly as she mulls over her replies.
Her arms bear the scars of three suicide attempts, which she blames on hormonal imbalance. She said it was corrected in 1983 with a hysterectomy.
Her ears still malfunction intermittently, not yet recovered from the sound of gunfire that she said shattered her home a few days before the abortion rights march. The shooting drove McCorvey into hiding, and reawakened her fears of political activism.
“Mostly, I’m tied up with merely surviving and trying to keep myself at a very healthy level,” she said.
Her life never was easy. The daughter of an Army private and a waitress, Norma Nelson moved from military base to military base as a child. Raised mainly in Texas, she remembers some happy times: camping out in her backyard with her brother, looking through a telescope at the starts.
But mostly she remembers her parents’ bickering, which prompted her to repeatedly run away from home. By the time she was 13, her parents had divorced. And by the time she was 16, she was bored with school and decided to drop out.
It wasn’t long before she got a job at a drive-in eatery and met Woody McCorvey, a customer who was rude to her at first, but eventually apologized and asked her for a date. Next thing she knew, McCorvey proposed to her, and she readily accepted.
After getting married in a judge’s chambers in blue jeans and flip[flops, the couple lived with McCorvey’s parents, then headed for California to chase their dreams. While Woody McCorvey labored as a sheetmetal worker, Norma McCorvey stayed home, cleaning house and trying to launch a career as a singer.
“I’d spend most of my time going through the yellow pages,” looking for places to audition, she said. “But I was too scared to go to them, so I ended up laying in the sun and talking to neighbors.”
Within two months, MCorvey became pregnant, and although she was happy, she said her husband reacted to the news with rage. McCorvey said he hit her, shoved her from the kitchen into the living room, then stomped out the door. The next day, she headed back to Dallas to live with her mother, vowing never to marry again.
After she delivered her baby, her mother started caring for the infant and before long, took complete control, McCorvey said. The mother soon moved out of the house with the child, and McCorvey said she was left alone, reduced to keeping in touch with her daughter through occasional visits and phone calls.
Within a year, she was pregnant again, this time with the child of a medical technician. She didn’t want that baby, so she gave the girl to the father, who promised to raise her if McCorvey vowed never to intrude on their lives.
The third pregnancy, the one that would change history, began three years later, after McCorvey met a man at the Sahara Bar in Dallas.
She was the barmaid and he was the customer, and their first conversation was about the mistake she’d made mixing a Singapore Sling.
At first, he’d come to the bar with another woman, but he started coming alone. Pool was his passion, and McCorvey would go to all of his tournaments. They were lovers only briefly. He never knew about the child, she said.
McCorvey did not know she was pregnant until she’d quit her job and joined a carnival, selling tickets to the freak show.
Somewhere on the road in Florida, between Fort Lauderdale and Jacksonville, McCorvey started to feel cranky. She knew that meant she was pregnant again, and she knew she did not want the baby.
It was then that she tried to get an abortion in Texas and discovered it was illegal. She told a doctor she was raped, but still he refused to help, she said. She visited an illegal abortion clinic, but left, disgusted with the filth.
When she made plans to put the child up for adoption, the lawyer gave her the names of the two young attorneys who wanted to challenge the state’s restrictive abortion laws. Before long, she was “Jane Roe” and had no clue what would happen next.
McCorvey resumed her wayward life, giving her baby up for adoption and holding various odd jobs. More than three years after she’d become the lead plaintiff in the class-action suit, she read about the Supreme Court decision in the newspaper.
For seven years, she kept the secret, sharing it with only six friends. Then, she read a newspaper story that said Jane Roe was a fictitious person, and decided it was time to speak out.
She did interviews from time to time and would give occasional speeches, which made her nervous. Then, she began to volunteer at abortion clinics.
“I would occasionally go out into the waiting room, sit down and talk,” she said. “I never introduced myself.”
Sometimes, clinic employees would ask if they could introduce her to a visitor, and McCorvey reluctantly would agree. Once, she became so embarrassed, she fled the room.
When a clinic worker complained of a backache one day, McCorvey took off the woman’s shoes and massaged her feet, according to Janie Bush, a counselor at the Routh Street Women’s Clinic. The woman ordered her to stop, saying, ”You can’t do that. You’re Norma McCorvey.” But McCorvey kept massaging, Bush said, telling the woman: “Of course, I can girl. Your back hurts.”
“She has the potential for representing a kind of every woman,” said Charlotte Taft, the clinic’s director. “She’s not a public figure who tries to be pained as superhuman. If she can make a change and didn’t have any money or power, then certainly other people can do it as well.” With the latest Supreme Court case challenging abortion rights, McCorvey decided to sacrifice her privacy and become more vocal in the movement. It has come at a high personal cost. She’s received a stream of hate mail and had baby clothes strewn across her lawn. There was the gunfire in April, and in June, the National Enquirer came along, proclaiming it had found the daughter she had relinquished for adoption.
Still, McCorvey keeps speaking out, mustering the courage from her convictions about abortion and from her newfound friend, Gloria Allred.
McCorvey clearly adores Allred, whom she met two months ago. She discusses her life in terms of “pre-Gloria days” and “post-Gloria days,” saying the attorney gave her the confidence and patience to expand her role in the abortion rights movement.
“Her face should be carved on Mount Everest,” McCorvey said. “She’s positive and very caring. She’s a woman helping other woman.”
McCorvey has become so enthralled with Allred that her friends in Texas say she has virtually cut off all contact with them.
“I am personally concerned about her,” said Bush. “Norma is more vulnerable than other people I know.”
But McCorvey seems to be enjoying her new identity. She put her plans to launch the Jane Roe Foundation on hold and talks about moving to California, where she spent the past week with Allred, preparing for a news conference on the day of the Supreme Court ruling.
Nowadays, more people recognize her and she doesn’t seem so scared. Sitting in a restaurant recently, she seemed pleased when a patron caught her eye and gave her a thumbs-up sign. She returned the signal with a grin.
“I’m out there in the trenches trying to uphold Roe v. Wade,” she said.