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Sunday, July 3, 1994 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Norma Mccorvey Has Regrets, But Being `Roe' Isn't One Of Them

Knight-Ridder Newspapers

For the past decade, Norma McCorvey has told her story in bits and pieces.

First - shaking, sick to her stomach and fortified by vodka and Valium - she told a Dallas television reporter she was Jane Roe of Roe vs. Wade, the anonymous pregnant plaintiff whose case led to the 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion in the United States.

Next, she admitted she had lied about that pregnancy in the hope it would help her get an abortion: It was a casual affair that made her pregnant, not rape as she told her Roe lawyers.

And, little by little, through occasional interviews, sporadic speaking engagements and a 1989 television movie, she revealed that before she gave birth to the Roe baby and gave her to adoptive parents, she had given birth to two other children (one adopted, she believes, by its father; the other adopted by McCorvey's mother). Slowly, she began speaking of her long-term lesbian relationship, her job cleaning houses, the joys of being a grandmother herself.

But if McCorvey seemed to hold something back for herself, it's understandable. She is Roe - a woman whose very name means abortion. Depending on your point of view, she is a hero or a victim, a saint or a demon.

Irrevocably public

She is also now totally, irrevocably public, having written with journalist Andy Meisler a memoir, "I Am Roe" (HarperCollins, $23). The book leaves little out: not her childhood of petty crime and reform school, or the affairs with lovers of both sexes, or the long nights spent drinking in Dallas dives, or the days of low-level drug-dealing that preceded Roe.

"Understand this about the movie," says McCorvey, now 46 and on tour with Meisler to promote the book. "The movie was basically focused on the issues, from '69 to '73. And to protect (me) and not to confuse the issue of my gay and lesbian lifestyle with the abortion issue, it was more or less sugarcoated."

"Sanitized," says Meisler.

"Sanitized," McCorvey repeats, wrinkling her brow slightly as if committing the word to memory. "This is a good word."

Suffering from a sore back (the result of lugging her heavy duffel bag through innumerable airports), she sits propped against the pillows on her hotel bed - a small, quick-moving woman who fits her nickname, "Pixie."

She wears a long, black knit dress arranged demurely over her knees and a string of beads around her ankle. Nine polished stones and crystals sit on the bedside table - bloodstone to give her focus, lapis to keep her grounded. A clay female figure lies on its back near a dried gourd rattle. It is a Native American fertility goddess, McCorvey explains. She sees no irony in this.

McCorvey, who says she gave up drinking and drugs about four years ago, has learned what she knows the hard way. She literally had to look up the word "abortion" in the dictionary in 1969, when as a spaced-out 21-year-old barker with a traveling carnival, she discovered she was pregnant with a baby she did not want and could not support.

Soon after, she was stunned to learn abortion was illegal. She found out when she asked a shocked doctor to give her one.

"And then," she says, with typical self-deprecating humor, "I had to look up the word `plaintiff.' "

But first, she had to meet Sarah Weddington and Linda Coffee, the young Texas lawyers looking for a pregnant woman who would carry the case for legalizing abortion to court. Referred to Weddington and Coffee by a Dallas adoption attorney, she met them at a pizza parlor.

"I think what happened at that restaurant in Dallas when I first met with Sarah and Linda was that they were both explaining (it) to me in legal terms, and I didn't have a clue to what they were saying at the time," she says. "So when I went away from that meeting, I was under the impression that they could possibly help me. That's the hint that I got."

For McCorvey, dedication to the pro-choice movement didn't come until the late 1980s. In 1969, Roe vs. Wade for her was not about trying to strike a blow for freedom of choice. It was about getting out of trouble.

By the time the case was tried and lost in Texas and the appeal was being readied, McCorvey was six months pregnant and still hopeful she ultimately would get an abortion. She remembers the day Coffee told her it was already months too late for that. "The world stopped," she writes in her book.

The lawyers went away

From that time on, the Roe lawyers dropped out of her life. On the day McCorvey came home from her job cleaning apartments, picked up the afternoon newspaper and read that Roe vs. Wade had been decided in her favor, the fetus she had wanted to abort was a 2-year-old child.

McCorvey will not say she is bitter about her treatment. But her manner becomes measured and controlled when she speaks about Weddington, whose own memoir was published in 1992.

"Sarah is Sarah Weddington, you know," McCorvey says, a hint of Texas twang in her voice. "She's an attorney. She teaches at the University of Texas in Austin, and I believe she still has a law practice, too." Then McCorvey closes her mouth.

They run in different circles, McCorvey adds when pushed. She's not bitter; it's just that she and the lawyer who argued her case before the Supreme Court lost contact.

Her relationship with leaders of the feminist movement has been prickly, perhaps because McCorvey is not the polished public spokeswoman. As Meisler puts it, "There's no spin to Norma. What you see is what you get."

And what you get is a woman who says she still struggles with a hot temper, a woman who in a haze signed adoption papers handing her first daughter to her lesbian-hating mother without realizing what she was doing, a woman who admits she has made some very big mistakes in her life.

"Most feminists come from higher education levels and stuff like that. And I was a street kid. I was a rebel," McCorvey says. "I really don't know where the women's movement is in terms of me coming out as Jane Roe. I really don't."

Meisler is more certain.

"I think she scares them big time," he says. "And I think what scares them most is Norma has never had the luxury to take the long view."

She certainly didn't take the long view when she signed on as plaintiff in Roe vs. Wade. But McCorvey is adamant she'd do it again. She would go public again, too, although she has been a target for hate mail, and someone fired a shotgun through the front window of her house in Dallas in 1989. On the positive side, pro-choice crowds cheer her public appearances, she has met movie stars and political figures, and her life has a purpose it never had before.

She insists the case has not made her rich. The TV movie paid her a $50,000 consulting fee, some of which she used to buy a television to watch it on, and she sidesteps the question of how much the book will make her, saying it probably will be less than the movie. The money she makes cleaning apartments in Dallas, McCorvey says, is still her main source of support.

But she does have a cause she believes in wholeheartedly.

"I would sit and watch TV and see an abortion clinic being burned to the ground," she says, remembering the time she spent thinking about whether or not to get involved in the pro-choice cause. She worked at an abortion clinic herself then, answering women's questions over the telephone.

"I would hear stories of people calling into the clinics with death threats, or following the women home after work from the clinic," she continues. "It all sort of took focus, I would say."

And it continues to. Ask McCorvey what her dreams for the future are, and the first thing she says is she'd like to take a public-speaking course. She plans to talk a lot more.

Ask her if, knowing what she does now, she would have had the abortion in 1969 had it been available, and she is equally as adamant.

"In a heartbeat," she says. "Sure I would."

Copyright (c) 1994 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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