Why Norma McCorvey’s Beliefs Matter

The original plaintiff behind Roe v. Wade is more than just a symbol in the abortion rights debate.

An illustration of Norma McCorvey.
Bettmann / Getty / Atlantic

Last weekend, FX premiered AKA Jane Roe, a documentary on Norma McCorvey, the plaintiff in Roe v. Wade. Backers of the film touted its most explosive revelation—that McCorvey, Jane Roe herself, had converted to the anti-abortion cause only because she was getting paid. This news made waves, and the attention it received has raised, in turn, a bigger question: Why does it matter at all what she really thought about abortion?

The constitutional-law expert Michael Dorf has argued that it doesn’t—or at least that clashing social movements have blown its significance way out of proportion. He contends that when it comes to the ultimate fate of abortion rights, McCorvey’s beliefs matter very little.

That may be right legally, but McCorvey—and making sense of her—remains central to the abortion debate, and the reason is obvious: Her story has come to stand in for the greater question of whether abortion is good for women—a question the Supreme Court is likely to rule on by the end of next month.

Parts of McCorvey’s story are well known. In 1995, as America’s clinic-blockade movement was fast declining, she converted to Christianity and renounced her role in Roe. McCorvey teamed up with Reverend Flip Benham, then the head of Operation Rescue. Her shift on abortion delighted many anti-abortionist activists, but her choice of Operation Rescue raised eyebrows. At the time, the group was beset by financial difficulties, legal troubles, and controversy surrounding its position on anti-abortion violence. In 1994, Benham had circulated a petition denouncing the murder of abortion doctors; the move shattered his organization. McCorvey, it seemed, tied herself to a strategy that was at the margins of American political life.

Less well known is that McCorvey also played a central role in arguably the most effective plan to reverse Roe v. Wade—one that may produce explosive results at the end of June, when the Supreme Court is expected to render a decision in June Medical Services v. Russo.

In the late 1990s, a fractious anti-abortion legal movement managed to agree on a new strategy: the argument that abortion hurts women. For some, this was not just a strategy but a genuine concern, responding in part to the recent formation of support groups for women who regretted their abortions. But there were other reasons to highlight these arguments: For many, Operation Rescue had branded the anti-abortion movement as misogynists willing to break the law.

Moreover, the Supreme Court had saved abortion rights in 1992 because the justices believed that abortion access helped women. In Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the justices reasoned that women had relied on abortion in achieving a more equal form of citizenship. Anti-abortion groups believed if they could prove that abortion harmed women, the right to choose would crumble.

Norma McCorvey provided just that kind of evidence. She called Harold Cassidy, a lawyer who had embarked on a new anti-abortion legal initiative. Cassidy believed that abortion itself violated a woman’s rights by ending a fundamental relationship between a mother and her child. His idea convinced major conservative donors and anti-abortion academics. And it persuaded McCorvey, who asked Cassidy to help her reopen her case. She claimed that she had not understood the facts about abortion—and that without a factual record, the Supreme Court had not understood the damage abortion was doing to women.

McCorvey didn’t succeed in getting rid of Roe v. Wade, but her phone call with Cassidy set the country on a path that leads directly to June Medical. Cassidy handed McCorvey’s request—and one made by Sandra Cano, the plaintiff in Doe v. Bolton—to Allan Parker, an attorney who had launched a project to collect affidavits from women who regretted their abortions. In 2007’s Gonzales v. Carhart, Parker’s Operation Outcry helped convince the Supreme Court that many women regretted abortions—and that women’s regret served as a justification for abortion restrictions.

The anti-abortion establishment largely dismissed Cassidy’s plan as a harebrained scheme. But most in the movement agreed that abortion rights would remain intact forever unless the Supreme Court (and the majority of Americans) believed that women suffered from abortions. Who better than Norma McCorvey to make that argument? Her involvement suggested that Roe had been rotten from the start.

That belief still guides many of the nation’s leading abortion opponents. Just take a look at the Court’s pending decision in June Medical. Most simply, the Court will decide whether Louisiana can require abortion doctors to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital. But June Medical is part of the same strategy to which McCorvey was so important. The backers of the Louisiana law claim to protect women from careless profiteers. They are asking the Court to hold that abortion providers care so little about women’s welfare that they can’t be trusted to bring lawsuits. If Louisiana succeeds, the anti-abortion movement will be a step closer to a ruling that women have never benefited from abortion rights. Norma McCorvey is patient zero in this narrative—the first victim of abortion rights.

So McCorvey’s confession threatens the very strategy that has the best chance of undoing Roe. And the image of McCorvey that emerges from AKA Jane Roe is dangerous to both the anti-abortion and pro-abortion-rights movements. The McCorvey on our screens is an irreverent, complicated woman, a survivor with more faith in herself than in any social movement. She is not a symbol of why the Supreme Court should uphold Louisiana’s abortion law—or why the justices should strike it down. She appears, if anything, to be a perfect symbol of abortion politics in a country where many support Roe v. Wade but also endorse far-reaching abortion restrictions. Who was Norma McCorvey? The answer to that question is messy, and that’s exactly what makes this so hard.