This Date in UCSF History: The real Jane Roe

Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Originally published on May 31, 1990. A small woman wearing blue jeans and tennis shoes stood nervously before a crowd of about 50 people, mostly women, in Toland Hall. In a quiet voice, with a strong Southern drawl, she told of a time when she was young, alone, without a job, without money, sleeping in the restroom of a bus station, and pregnant.

In an intimate tone, she recounted the events that led her to become involved in a court case that has become the center of the abortion debate in the United States. Norma McCorvey, better known as Jane Roe, was the plaintiff in the 1973 Supreme Court case Roe vs. Wade that restricted the rights of states to proscribe abortion.

But she was not at USCF to debate abortion.

She did not discuss the physical or moral aspects of abortion. She did not review the current development of the legal battle over abortion. Few people in the audience seemed to need such a lecture.

McCorvey was here to tell her personal story, to explain why she got involved. When McCorvey realized she could not legally get an abortion in the state of Texas she was surprised. It seemed natural to her that a woman would have the right to choose on a matter so personal. She was not a highly educated or sophisticated young woman.

She did not know the degree to which a state could limit a woman’s reproductive freedom. She only knew that she felt strongly that reproduction was a private issue, to be decided by the individual. Unable to attain a safe, legal abortion, Norma chose to give her child up for adoption. In the process she met two women attorneys who asked her to become the plaintiff in a lawsuit against the district attorney of Dallas.

She took a pseudonym to keep her family from becoming involved. In this way Roe vs. Wade began, in 1973 the United States Supreme Court ruled on the basis of the Ninth and 14th Amendments that a constitutional right to privacy encompassed a woman’s right to choose abortion.

McCorvey stayed relatively uninvolved in the prochoice movement for some time. After giving her child up for adoption, she retreated into private life for over 13 years. Then, in 1984, she chose to tell her story in an interview. She admitted for the First time a fact that had haunted her for years.

McCorvey had lied to her attorney and doctor about the circumstances of her pregnancy. Out of fear and anger she told them that she had been gang raped.

Today McCorvey admits that this was a lie for which she has paid a price. Public outrage over her lie belatedly obscured the true meaning of the Supreme Court’s decision in 1973. McCorvey was quick to point out that the alleged rape had absolutely no bearing on the court case. The issue for Roe vs. Wade was the right to privacy in freedom in reproductive activity, regardless of the circumstances.

The 1984 interview brought McCorvey further into the center of a legal, moral and emotional battle that has left her with many scars. In 1989 her home and car were riddled with shotgun fire. She often fears for her life. She has experienced severe depression and has once attempted suicide. The stress of public life led McCorvey to alcohol abuse, and she is currently undergoing treatment for possible cirrhosis of the liver.

McCorvey did not express any regret over the role she has played. The right to reproductive freedom — be it the right to an abortion, the rights of adoptive mothers, or equal access to contraception and infertility technology, is important to McCorvey.

She is currently setting up an organization that will play a role in educating women and men on issues of reproductive freedom, and in encouraging each and every person to become involved in the fight for what she considers a constitutional right.

McCorvey does not fear that the right to a safe, legal abortion will be taken away. She has faith that people will become involved in education and in legal and political activities, just as she did. Her message to the UCSF audience was simple: If a young, uneducated girl, uncomfortable in the glare of the media and unfamiliar with legal issues, found reproductive freedom worth fighting for, shouldn’t many others?

The audience seemed to return a warm sense of gratitude towards McCorvey for the role she has played in the prochoice movement. A number of women in the audience described their own experiences with abortion, and thanked McCorvey. Her appearance provided a timely reminder of the role we can all play. Audrey Foster is a first-year medical student.