The heartbreaking story of “Jane Roe” and the “Roe baby” who was born

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The heartbreaking story of “Jane Roe” and the “Roe baby” who was born

July 6, 2022 - Mark Legg

FILE - In this July 28, 2009 file photo, Norma McCorvey, the plaintiff in the landmark lawsuit Roe v. Wade, speaks as she joins other anti-abortion demonstrators inside House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's office on Capitol Hill in Washington. In a 2020 documentary, she admitted she was paid by anti-abortion activists for her inauthentic conversion. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

FILE - In this July 28, 2009 file photo, Norma McCorvey, the plaintiff in the landmark lawsuit Roe v. Wade, speaks as she joins other anti-abortion demonstrators inside House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's office on Capitol Hill in Washington. In a 2020 documentary, she admitted she was paid by anti-abortion activists for her inauthentic conversion. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

On January 22, 1973, the Supreme Court decided in favor of an anonymous woman called “Jane Roe” regarding her right to have an abortion, protected under the so-called “right to privacy” in the Consitution. Well over 60 million abortions have been performed since then. 

Now, with Roe v. Wade overturned, division over the issue continues. 

As always, politics, numbers, and statistics too often obscure the stories of each woman who decides to get an abortion or give birth even when it’s unthinkably difficult. Each person has a different story, but they are always full of tragedy and complexity. 

The “Roe” in Roe v. Wade is Norma McCorvey. She died in 2017 as a troubled woman. Her legacy is a shocking one of complexity, deceit, attention-seeking, scandal, and a glimmer of redemption.  

Norma McCorvey, an “imperfect plaintiff”

Norma McCorvey was born in 1947 to an alcoholic, single mother in Texas. She was a delinquent and somewhat rebellious child. Her mother sent her to a reform school because Norma was caught kissing a girl. She dropped out of high school and struggled with drug addiction, alcohol addiction, and homelessness. Throughout her poverty-stricken life, she was a “waitress and drug dealer, prostitute and painter, respiratory therapist and bond-runner.”

Although she chased after girlfriends, she married a man and became pregnant when she was sixteen, then quickly divorced him. By her third pregnancy at twenty-two years old, she wanted an abortion but couldn’t afford a doctor in California. 

So, she sued Texas under the protection of a pseudonym, “Jane Roe.” The court case took three years to reach the Supreme Court’s verdict. 

In that timeframe, McCorvey had birthed her child and had given her up for adoption. 

Not good enough for pro-choice feminists

McCorvey publicly announced that she was Jane Roe in 1980. She became a pro-choice activist and claimed her reason for conceiving the “Roe baby” was because of rape. She later admitted this was a lie. 

McCorvey was rough around the edges, used sick humor, and couldn’t easily be controlled. When she admitted to lying about her rape in the late eighties, the pro-choice activist movement essentially shunned her. In her words, she was “trying to please everyone and trying to be hardcore pro-choice.” As a high school dropout, she said she “wasn’t good enough for [the pro-choice movement]. . . . I’m a street kid.”

In her tragic life, she gave three daughters up for adoption, lived with a lesbian partner for years before a bitter breakup, struggled with drug addiction, and fought to make ends meet. She seemed to seek attention and money wherever she could, so her motives were complex and always in question. 

But a hint of redemption shines through, and the end of her life gives a lesson for pro-life Christians.  

The prodigal daughter? 

After a tumultuous few decades, relationships with pro-life advocates led Norma McCorvey to faith in Christ, and she was baptized in a backyard swimming pool in 1995. Three years later, she would become a Roman Catholic. After her baptism, she began speaking at pro-life organizations and even tried to have the Supreme Court overturn Roe v. Wade in 2004. 

Some have questioned the sincerity of her faith. A recent documentary about her, AKA Jane Roe, claimed that she converted and became pro-life simply for the money. On her deathbed, she “confessed” that she became pro-life because of the money, but that’s not quite true. Jonathon Van Maren challenges the documentary’s narrative in Christianity Today. And Joshua Prager, the foremost expert on the Roe family, says that her faith was fully genuine in some areas and in other areas, probably not. He strongly denies, however, that she was ever paid to convert to Christianity. 

So what did McCorvey really believe about abortion? 

According to Prager, she privately and consistently believed abortion should be allowed during the first trimester, although pro-life friends insist her views on pro-life were genuine.  

Complex, right? 

The “Roe baby” 

Shelly Thornton found out she was the biological daughter of the famous “Roe” in the worst way: a tabloid reporter dug up adoption records to find her and broke the news to her. After, she tried to hide from the spotlight for thirty years. 

Finally, she broke the silence and said she didn’t want to be seen as on either “side” of the debate but did talk about her relationship with McCorvey. It was heart-wrenching and bitter. 

For example, Thornton believed McCorvey only wanted to reunite as a publicity stunt. In an interview with ABC News in 2021, Thornton outright said she did not forgive her mother and didn’t regret having never met her face-to-face. McCorvey didn’t apologize for giving Thornton away, wanting an abortion, or even the pain she caused her daughter.

In fact, McCorvey once angrily told Thornton that she should thank her for not getting an abortion—a knife in the heart of Thornton since the whole point of Roe was that she wanted to abort her. Thornton said she hoped McCorvey would one day “feel something for another human being, especially for one she brought into this world.” She wanted McCorvey to experience what she enjoys: the joy that comes from loving and mothering your own children.

What do Roe’s daughters believe about abortion? 

McCorvey was never able to make peace with Thornton. So, what about Thornton’s views on abortion? 

She’d held that opinion “close to her chest.” However, after Roe was overturned, she said, “I believe that the decision to have an abortion is a private, medical choice that should be between a woman, her family, and her doctor” and called it a “fundamental right.” But, she did this through a “spokesperson,” so it may be hard to know her true opinions. 

In the past, Thornton has said she couldn’t see herself getting an abortion but believed it shouldn’t be up to the government. In fact, early in her life, Shelly became pregnant out of wedlock with her future husband but refused to get an abortion. 

Taking a step back, it is beautiful that all three of Norma McCorvey’s daughters have become far more stable, with families of their own. McCorvey did not get abortions in any of the cases, and her second and third children were adopted by loving, nurturing families. Her first child went to her grandmother, and, ultimately, she was close to McCorvey and acted as a comfort to her in her old age. 

Even though the oldest daughter and Thornton at least tentatively support abortion (the second child has remained out of the public eye), they are alive and breathing because her mother gave birth to them even in her troubled life (by choice or not). 

Where is the redemption? How can Christians respond? 

None of the characters in this painful story fit into a mold, either for the pro-choice or pro-life camps. McCorvey was on a roller coaster her whole life, unstable and flawed. She was close with her first daughter more as a friend than a mother but didn’t reconcile with Thornton.

And there was a group that continued to show overwhelming kindness and graciousness to her: her close Christian friends in the pro-life movement. Certainly, some in the pro-life movement used her as a symbol rather than loving her as a human. But throughout the 2000s, McCorvey gained genuine, loving friends who pointed her back to God’s grace. When she felt crushing guilt for all the unborn children who had died, friends reminded her of the forgiveness found in Christ. 

The money that pro-life organizations gave McCorvey were not bribes; they were generous support for a woman struck with poverty for most of her life. 

Another close friend of twenty-two years, Karen Garnett, was shocked when McCorvey admitted that she felt used by the pro-life movement. On McCorvey’s deathbed, Garnett sincerely apologized on behalf of anyone in the pro-life movement who had hurt her or used her. On her deathbed, devout Christian friends stayed with her.

The sanctity of life from “womb to tomb”

Again, Maren in Christianity Today writes, “In the midst of our movement’s failures and successes, we, like Garnett, are invited to be Christ’s voice of love to the vulnerable. We share a high calling—to admit our failures . . . and embody Christian ethics as we seek to protect the unborn and those who carry them. The people we serve include the McCorveys of the world . . . ”

We can rejoice knowing that Christ has enough grace for us all, in all of our complexities, deceit, selfishness, wrong-headedness, and sin. And, if Norma “Roe” McCorvey professed that Jesus is Lord and trusted him with her life, she will join us in heaven free from the grips of depression, addiction, and guilt (Romans 10:9; Revelation 21:1–4). 

Armed with the knowledge of Jesus’ grace, we must live compassionately for mothers in distress, even hard-to-love people like McCorvey, while we advocate for the sanctity of unborn life. 

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