The world is filled with interesting stories, some more than others. So it is with Norma McCorvey, AKA Jane Roe. Norma grew up in the same era in which I lived. In fact she was very close in age to me. She was born in Louisiana to parents who seemed ill prepared to raise children. Her father was an abusive alcoholic and her parents’ union ended in divorce not long after Norma was born. Some women have a very unfortunate habit of falling in love with bad boys and so it was with Norma’s mom who forged a second relationship with a man who sexually abused Norma on a regular basis. By the time that Norma had reached her adolescence she was continually at odds with the law and ended up in juvenile detention centers and foster homes. Hers had been a confusing childhood without guidance, loving protection or opportunities. Little wonder that she was married and pregnant by the time that she was only sixteen.
Norma, like her mother before her, made many bad choices and was left by her husband to raise the child on her own. Realizing that she did not have any of the resources needed to care for herself much less a youngster, Norma gave the little girl to her mom. After that her life became a continuing series of unfortunate events. She became pregnant again and decided to give the little one up for adoption. She repeated her mom’s mistakes, seeming to be unlucky in love and life in general. When she became pregnant a third time she wanted to have an abortion but it was still illegal to do so in the state of Texas where she resided. A couple of lawyers who were looking for a test case to challenge the law took Norma under their wings and fought all the way to the Supreme Court for her rights and those of others to abort fetuses that were unwanted, claiming that particularly because Norma had been raped she should not have to have the baby.
The court case took well over three years to complete so Norma was forced to bear the little girl that she carried all the way to birth. She gave that child up for adoption just as she had with the earlier baby but ultimately won her case in the famous Roe vs. Wade decision that forever changed the way many women would view unwanted pregnancies. Norma never again became pregnant nor did she ever require or receive an abortion but she nonetheless became a celebrity in the pro choice ranks and even worked for many years in an abortion clinic. She seemed to find finally find her footing when she settled down with another woman in Dallas continuing to fight for women’s rights on a regular basis.
Along the way Norma met members of a Dallas pro-life group. They discussed with her their own beliefs that a fetus is a human being with its own rights as a person. Initially she scoffed at their arguments and in the feisty way that was her trademark made fun of their religious thinking. Somehow in an unlikely alliance they began to respect one another and Norma was taken by the way in which her opponents seemed to love her in spite of their differing opinions. Nobody had ever treated her with so much respect. She began to listen to what they had to say and to consider the possibility that perhaps their thoughts were valid.
She found herself feeling bothered by what she saw happening in the abortion clinic where she worked. Finally she renounced her pro choice position claiming that she had been used by the two lawyers who represented her in the landmark case. She even insisted that she had lied about being raped in order to make her situation appear to be more worthy of sympathy. She was baptized and in a stunning reversal became a spokesperson for the pro-life movement. Eventually she even left her long term partner and became a Catholic.
Norma was living in Katy, Texas not far from where I live when she died a couple of weeks ago. She never again saw the two children that she had given up for adoption but she is said to have thought about them often. The daughter that her mother had raised was by her side as she breathed her final breaths.
I was particularly taken by the sadness of Norma’s life. I encountered so many young girls like her when I was a teacher, sad souls who were forced into adult roles long before they were ready because their parents were unable or unwilling to care properly for them. I have taught twelve year olds who were raped by family members and became pregnant. They were angry, confused and fearful over what had happened to them. Their children became more like younger brothers or sisters than someone for whose life they were responsible. They were totally unprepared for the difficulties that lay ahead of them.
I have seen the loving results of children who have been saved from such situations through the process of adoption. When paired with genuinely caring adults they generally thrive and lead incredibly wonderful lives. There is something quite special about the realization that they have been chosen that helps them to grow to be strong and confident. I’d like to think that Norma’s adopted children found happy homes and that they were able to break the cycle of poverty and abuse that had been the definition of Norma’s lifestyle.
The question of abortion is a complex one that will not soon go away. There is much disagreement about when an unborn child becomes a person. We are inching further and further into the developmental cycle of the fetus in determining where the line is drawn in determining what state defines viability. There are now places where abortion is permitted all the way up to twenty four weeks. Many consider it a form of birth control and each year millions of women end their pregnancies not because they have been raped or have health issues but because they do not want to have a child.
On the other side of the argument are those who believe that conception is the defining moment of personhood and that abortion is murder of a human being. They find the practice to be barbaric and morally wrong and fight continuously to outlaw the abortion once and for all. Many consider such individuals to be little more than religious zealots but they see themselves as soldiers in a battle against an evil that must be stopped.
Ironically Norma McCorvey was the face of both sides during her lifetime. She believed that she had seen the light in her later years when she became a pro-life advocate. She felt that she had been used and abused for most of her life and that it was within a community of faith-filled individuals that she finally found the love and respect for which she had been searching since she was a child. She died convinced that her part in Roe vs. Wade was flawed and terribly wrong.
It appears that Norma somehow found a modicum of peace and even built a loving relationship with the one daughter with whom she still had contact. She found friendships that she enjoyed and her life became bearable. I would like to think that she is now enjoying the peace that had been so elusive for her for so much of her existence. Hers was a search for love and truth that is now at an end. May she forever rest in peace and may those of us still here find the answers to the questions that she posed and the strength and wisdom to work for what is right just as Norma tried to do.