Forty-nine years after Roe v. Wade upheld the constitutional right to abortion in the United States, the Supreme Court has overturned the landmark 1973 ruling, dealing a significant blow to reproductive rights nationwide and enabling some two dozen states to imminently ban or limit access to the procedure.
Passed by a majority of 6-to-3, the court’s ruling on Dobbs v. Jackson’s Women’s Health Organization arrives just under two months after the leak of a draft majority opinion by Justice Samuel Alito. First reported by Politico in early May, the draft represented “a full-throated, unflinching repudiation” of Roe, according to reporters Josh Gerstein and Alexander Ward. Today’s final opinion, also by Alito, closely echoes the leaked draft, arguing that “the authority to regulate abortion must be returned to the people and their elected representatives.”
Friday’s decision arrives at a time when a signfiicant majority of Americans support abortion rights. According to a recent Pew Research Center survey, 61 percent of U.S. adults believe abortion should be legal in all or most instances, while 37 percent think it should be illegal in all or most cases. “[T]he partisan divide on abortion is far wider than it was two decades ago,” notes Pew’s Hannah Hartig in a blog post.
As individuals across the country reckon with the prospect of a post-Roe America, the story of the court case that first codified the constitutional right to an abortion is making headlines once again. Here’s what you need to know about Roe v. Wade—and the woman behind it: Norma McCorvey, better known by the pseudonym “Jane Roe.”
In September 1969, 21-year-old McCorvey became pregnant for the third time. She’d had a difficult childhood, dropping out of school in the ninth grade and ending up in a reform school after a motel maid caught her and another girl kissing. (McCorvey had relationships with both men and women but self-identified as a lesbian.) She wed for the first time at age 16 but divorced her husband when he became physically abusive. After giving birth to a daughter in 1965, she began struggling with drug and alcohol abuse, eventually relinquishing custody to her mother (though whether she did so voluntarily is up for debate). In 1967, she gave birth to a second child, whom she put up for adoption.
During her third pregnancy, McCorvey hoped to get an abortion. But laws in her home state of Texas were highly restrictive, only allowing abortions if carrying the fetus to term threatened the mother’s health. As Erin Blakemore points out for National Geographic, McCorvey—“unlike wealthier and better resourced women”—lacked the means to travel to one of the few states where she could get a legal abortion, and she could not afford to pay for one illegally.
“I was a woman alone with no place to go and no job,” McCorvey told the Southern Baptist Convention news service in 1973. “No one wanted to hire a pregnant woman. I felt there was no one in the world who could help me.”
Out of options, McCorvey turned to Dallas lawyers Sarah Weddington and Linda Coffee, who were in search of the perfect plaintiff for their attempt to challenge Texas’ abortion laws. In 1970, when McCorvey was five months pregnant, she signed an affidavit that she later claimed to have never read. In the words of the New York Times’ Robert D. McFadden, “She just wanted a quick abortion and had no inkling that the case would become a cause célèbre.”
McCorvey’s lawyers filed the case at a federal district courthouse in Dallas on March 3, 1970. Dubbed Roe v. Wade, the lawsuit anonymized McCorvey as “Jane Roe”; the second half of its name refers to the defendant, Henry Wade, the district attorney charged with enforcing Texas’ abortion laws.
Coffee and Weddington argued that Texas’ abortion laws violated women’s constitutional right to privacy. The district court ruled in the pair’s favor but dismissed their request to stop enforcing the state’s old abortion laws, leading both Wade and McCorvey’s team to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court.
Weddington, then just 26, presented her oral arguments to the all-male Supreme Court on December 13, 1971. By then, notes Joshua Prager for the Atlantic, she and Coffee had made Roe into a class-action suit demonstrating “the case for the constitutional right of all Americans” to determine the path of their own lives.
Just before opening arguments, two Supreme Court justices retired, leaving only seven justices to hear the case, per the Embryo Project Encyclopedia. The remaining justices deemed the Texas laws unconstitutional by a 4-to-3 majority. But Justice Harry A. Blackmun, who’d been tasked with writing the majority opinion, suggested rearguing the case in front of the full bench—a polarizing proposal that sparked fears among the majority that the two replacement justices would vote against them. Rearguments took place on October 11, 1972, and the court issued its ruling on January 22, 1973, effectively legalizing abortion across the U.S. by a 7-to-2 majority.
By the time the court ruled on Roe, McCorvey’s pregnancy had long since ended. Unable to obtain an abortion, she gave birth to a baby girl on June 2, 1970. She subsequently gave the child up for adoption.
“Roe v. Wade … was a watershed for women in general but irrelevant for Ms. McCorvey in particular,” wrote the Washington Post’s Emily Langer in McCorvey’s 2017 obituary.
For years after the Roe decision, McCorvey—who’d ultimately had limited involvement in the case—kept her identity as Jane Roe a carefully guarded secret, even hiding it from her long-term partner, Connie Gonzalez.
On the day McCorvey finally revealed her role in the case, “She picked up the newspaper, twiddling her thumbs real nervous,” Gonzalez told the New York Times’ Alex Witchel. “And she told me about the Supreme Court decision. And I said, ‘That's fantastic.’ And she said, ‘But you’re a Catholic.’ And I said, ‘So what? I feel a woman’s got the right to choose.’ And she said, ‘Well, I’m Jane Roe.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, and I’m the pope.’”
McCorvey started publicizing her story in the 1980s, advocating for the right to choose. But in 1995, she made an abrupt about-face, declaring herself a born-again Christian and a staunch opponent of abortion. Soon before her death in 2017, McCorvey changed her story once again, claiming that she’d always supported abortion rights; in an interview for the documentary AKA Jane Roe, she said, “I took [anti-abortion advocates’] money and they put me out in front of the camera and told me what to say, and that’s what I’d say.”
When the documentary’s director asked if it “was all an act,” McCorvey replied, “Yeah. I was good at it, too.”
In her 1994 memoir I Am Roe, McCorvey offered a less cynical view of her place in the fight for reproductive rights.
“I wasn’t the wrong person to become Jane Roe,” she wrote. “I wasn’t the right person to become Jane Roe. I was just the person who became Jane Roe, of Roe v. Wade. And my life story, warts and all, was a little piece of history.”