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Roe .v. Wade - the Story Behind the Story

Updated on May 21, 2019
RJ Schwartz profile image

I'm on the right side of politics and enjoy a good debate on government, the economy, common sense, and the rights of the people.

Norma McCorvey - Jane Roe

The Supreme Court makes many decisions each session. Some are routine, while others are so impactful as to change the direction of the nation. One such decision that almost everyone is familiar with is the landmark Supreme Court case, Roe v. Wade 410U.S. 113. Although the case was heard and decided in 1973 by the Supreme Court, it’s still being debated today in the “court of public opinion.” The case that was brought before the court concerned the Constitutionality of state laws that restricted access to, or criminalized abortions. The outcome was decided in a 7-2 ruling by the high court, and it was seen as a victory for women’s rights. That decision has been a major bone of contention between the two leading political parties ever since. What’s interesting is that despite the general knowledge about the ruling, most Americans are unaware of the specifics which led to the case reaching the Supreme Court and that there was never a woman named Jane Roe. It was a pseudonym for the real plaintiff, a Texas woman whose name was Norma McCorvey.

The details most accounts report on are straightforward. They tell a short tale of how Ms. McCorvey became Jane Roe though a series of events that started with her as a young 21 year old woman who was pregnant with her third child. Her first child was being raised by her mother and she had given her second child up for adoption. She didn’t want the third child and wanted to get an abortion, however Texas state law at the time, only permitted abortion to save the life of a pregnant woman. She sued, using the pseudonym Jane Roe, and as history has shown, she ultimately won her case. However due to the timing of the case, her pregnancy progressed and she ended up delivering the baby before the ruling. That baby was also given up for adoption. Norma McCorvey’s identity was also kept secret for nearly a decade after the ruling. Unlike today, the media made no attempt to find her and pursue further stories.

A Troubled Teen In Trouble

Today we know much more about the story. A more detailed version reaches back to her life as a troubled teenager named Norma Nelson. Ms. Nelson was a high school dropout; she had been a runaway and sent to reform school. She was abused as a child and her parents divorced when she was only 13. Her only escape, it seemed, was to make her own way in the world. She found love and married Elwood McCorvey when she was 16 years old and the couple made their way to California. Soon thereafter, she returned home, pregnant and alone. She gave birth and her own mother went on to raise the child. The details of her second pregnancy are relatively unknown including the name of the father, only that the father took custody of the child and had no contact with her. She initially said that her third pregnancy was the result of rape, she was broke and without means, so she created a fictional rape story to make a case for an abortion. Due to the slow moving court system, she didn’t have an opportunity to get an abortion and the child was given up for adoption. Years later she admitted that she invented the rape story.

Sarah Weddington and Linda Coffee - Roe Attorneys

Two Ambitious Lawyers

The lawyers representing “Roe” were Sarah Weddington and Linda Coffee, and it was no accident that they came across McCorvey. History showed that they were actively seeking someone just like her; a woman who wanted an abortion but didn’t have the means to obtain one for one reason or another. We also know that it was an adoption attorney who introduced Coffee and Weddington to McCorvey. One critical element the two attorneys needed to secure was to find a woman who was early in her pregnancy and would remain pregnant but wouldn’t leave the state of Texas to another state where abortion was legal. This was part of the strategy to fight the Texas law and any naysayers who might say she could easily just go to another state.

Ms. McCorvey never set foot in a courtroom but the two ambitious lawyers pressed on and presented a case to the Texas court system against Wade, a state official, claiming that the Texas law preventing Roe from having an abortion was unconstitutional. Article 1196 of the Texas Penal Code limited abortions to circumstances when “procured or attempted by medical advice for the purposes of saving the life of the mother.” The Court issued declaratory relief stating that Article 1196 was both vague and overbroad. However, the Roe case was not granted Injunctive relief (a court order for the practice to be stopped), Coffee and Weddington appealed to the United States Supreme Court.


The Supreme Court ruled on January 22nd, 1973 by a 7-2 decision that a woman’s right to an abortion is covered under the fundamental right to privacy and that it shall not be infringed upon. The Court ultimately decided that prior to completion of the first trimester, a woman may have an abortion and electing to do so may not be criminalized. Ironically the Court also stated that after the first trimester, the individual states may regulate abortion in a manner reasonably related to the mother’s health or other factors.

After that ruling, abortion was legal in America; however the law continues to be challenged on a regular basis. One woman’s lie and two ambitious lawyers combined to change the nation .

© 2019 Ralph Schwartz


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