Norma Leah Nelson McCorvey, the “Jane Roe” of Roe v. Wade, the landmark U. S. Supreme Court case that legalized abortion, was born on September 22, 1947, in Simmesport, Louisiana. She was the daughter of Olin Julius Nelson, a World War II veteran and a television repairman from Texas, and Mildred Mary (Gautreaux) Nelson, a waitress from Louisiana. The family moved to Houston, Texas, around 1951. According to her autobiography, I Am Roe (1994), her parents had a tumultuous relationship, and her father left the family. When he returned a year later, the family moved to Dallas, where her parents permanently separated. Norma and her brother, Jimmy, grew up impoverished and neglected, and her mother verbally and physically abused her. When Norma was ten years old, she ended up in legal trouble and was sent to Mount St. Michael School for Girls. After poor behavior, she was transferred to the Gainesville School for Girls, which she called “the happiest [time] of my childhood.” She lived there off and on until she turned fifteen years old. Upon her release, her mother sent her to live with an older cousin, who she stated repeatedly sexually assaulted her until her mother brought her home.
On June 17, 1964, Norma married Elwood “Woody” McCorvey, moved to California, and soon became pregnant. After her husband became physically abusive, she returned to Dallas and got a divorce. She gave birth to a daughter, Melissa McCorvey, in 1965. Soon after, Norma came out as a lesbian to her mother, who, with her father’s help, had her declared an unfit parent, then adopted Melissa. The LGBTQ community in Oak Lawn took Norma in and became her family. She battled problems with depression and alcohol and substance abuse and had a series of jobs and relationships. During a period of relative stability, she worked as a respiratory therapist and had a steady girlfriend, until a short liaison with a man left McCorvey pregnant and alone. She also lost her job; her employer had a policy that pregnancy was grounds for termination for unmarried female employees. She placed the child for adoption at birth and continued her transient life with forays into selling and using illicit drugs, playing billiards in bars for money, and working for a traveling carnival.
In late 1969, while with the carnival, McCorvey learned she was pregnant. She returned to Dallas and the LGBTQ community that had helped her in the past (see DALLAS LGBT COMMUNITY). She did not want to go through a pregnancy again and had a difficult time finding employment outside of bartending. Her options, however, were limited. At the time, Texas law prohibited abortion in all cases except when medically necessary to save a woman’s life. She could not afford the travel expense to New York and California, the only states where abortion was legal, so sought out how to get a safe abortion illegally without success. She even claimed that her pregnancy was a result of rape, which she admitted later was a lie, with the hope that an exception to the law might be made. A physician put McCorvey in contact with attorney Henry J. McCluskey, Jr., who arranged adoptions. He put her in contact with Linda Coffee, an attorney and friend who was looking for a woman like McCorvey.
In early 1970 McCorvey met with Coffee and fellow attorney Sarah Weddington, who had a plan to legally challenge and overturn Texas’s restrictive abortion law in federal court but needed a plaintiff who wanted a legal abortion and could not afford to get one. Norma wanted her identity to remain hidden to protect her daughter, Melissa McCorvey. Coffee assigned Norma the pseudonym of “Jane Roe” and filed the class-action lawsuit in federal district court on March 3, 1970. Coffee named Dallas district attorney Henry Wade as the defendant. By then, Norma was six-months pregnant. She continued to live anonymously in Dallas and was not involved with the court proceedings. According to Joshua Prager, a journalist with access to McCorvey’s records, she had given birth and the baby was adopted by the time the court delivered its verdict on June 17, 1970. The court struck down Texas’s abortion law but did not issue an injunction to prevent the state from enforcing the law they just declared unconstitutional. This combination allowed Coffee and Weddington to appeal the decision directly to the United States Supreme Court.
The U. S. Supreme Court announced its historic ruling on January 22, 1973. McCorvey went public as “Jane Roe” four days later. By then she was in a long-term relationship with her domestic partner, Connie Gonzalez, with whom she lived and had a cleaning and painting business. She remained out of the public eye, however, until the decision’s tenth anniversary in 1983. In 1985 she spoke out against violence targeting abortion clinics after twenty-seven abortion clinics, including six in Texas, were fire-bombed or set on fire in 1984. She retold her story to numerous reporters and women’s rights groups but rarely told it the same way twice. In September 1987 she recanted that a rape led to her pregnancy in the Roe case.
In the late 1980s McCorvey became an activist, which provided her with income and attention as well as threats and intimidation. In 1989, four days after someone allegedly shot at her and Gonzalez in their Dallas home, she spoke at a large abortion rights rally in Washington, D. C., and met Gloria Allred. Allred, a civil rights attorney, became a friend, who helped her curtail her drug and alcohol use and navigate the world of media and fundraising. That year NBC produced a made-for-television biopic that starred actress Holly Hunter, who won an Emmy for her portrayal of McCorvey. Norma received a percentage of the film’s gross. In 1993 she signed a book deal with HarperCollins to publish her life story in I Am Roe. She also used her fame to raise funds for her Jane Roe Foundation to “help poor Texas women obtain legal abortions” and later the Jane Roe Women’s Center. Both were short-lived.
Her views on abortion shifted in 1995 after she met Phillip “Flip” Benham. He was an evangelical preacher and the executive director of Operation Rescue, a national anti-abortion organization, which opened an office next door to the Dallas women’s clinic where McCorvey volunteered. In August Benham baptized her. Covered by ABC News and the Dallas Morning News, the event received international attention. In the months following, she renounced homosexuality, publicly reversed her position on abortion, and started working for Operation Rescue. According to her second autobiography, Won by Love (1997), she and Gonzalez’s relationship had been platonic since 1992; they continued to live together as friends.
Now an anti-abortion activist, McCorvey claimed she had been manipulated by Coffee and Weddington and treated badly by the pro-choice movement. She protested at abortion clinics in Dallas and spoke at rallies and demonstrations. She also helped establish Roe No More Ministry, which paid her an annual salary of $40,000. Benham served as her advisor and helped her negotiate an $80,000 book deal with Thomas Nelson Publishing that resulted in Won by Love. In 1996 and 1998 she urged the United States Senate and the U. S. Supreme Court to reverse the Roe v. Wade decision. She also converted to Roman Catholicism and traveled internationally to speak to Catholic organizations. In 2009 she was arrested for disrupting the Senate hearings for Sonia Sotomayor’s appointment to the U. S. Supreme Court, and during the 2012 presidential election, she appeared in television ads against the re-election of Barack Obama. McCorvey moved to Smithville, Texas, in 2009 and appeared in Doonby (2013), a film made in Smithville by actor John Schneider and his San Antonio-based company, Faith Works Productions.
After a long illness, Norma McCorvey died of heart failure on February 18, 2017, in Katy, Texas. After her death, she again made news. In the 2020 documentary AKA Jane Roe, filmed during her final months of life, an ill McCorvey gave what she called her “deathbed confession.” She stated that she had always supported abortion rights and her role with anti-abortion groups was “all an act” for which she was paid. See also BIRTH CONTROL MOVEMENT IN TEXAS and WOMEN AND HEALTH.