Roe v. Wade

Who Was Jane Roe and What Did the Landmark Case Decide?

What happened to "Jane Roe" after the ruling was handed down?

In this April 26, 1989, file photo, Norma McCorvey, Jane Roe in the 1973 court case, left, and her attorney Gloria Allred hold hands as they leave the Supreme Court building in Washington after sitting in while the court listened to arguments in a Missouri abortion case.
J. Scott Applewhite/AP

She became pregnant three times, was an abortion rights supporter who later converted to Catholicism and who on her deathbed, made another about-face. The life of Norma McCorvey, the woman behind Roe v. Wade, was at times as controversial as the Supreme Court ruling that bore her pseudonym.

Now the landmark ruling that has given American women the right to an abortion for nearly 50 years seems about to be overturned. A draft opinion by Justice Samuel Alito that was leaked to the media would uphold a Mississippi law that bans nearly all abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy. The document suggests that at least five justices agree. 

What was the case that many heralded but others fought fiercely against over the years? Here are some details.

Who Were Roe and Wade? 

Norma McCorvey sought an abortion in Texas in 1969 when she was five months pregnant with her third child. At the time, she was 22 and unmarried. But Texas banned the procedure except to save a mother’s life. 

After she tried unsuccessfully to get an illegal abortion, she was put in touch with two recent graduates of the University of Texas Law School, Sarah Weddington and Linda Coffee. In a lawsuit brought on her behalf, they argued that she had a constitutional right to a safe abortion in Texas. Her right to privacy under the the First, Fourth, Ninth and 14th amendments had been violated, they said.

She became Jane Roe to preserve her anonymity. Their lawsuit named Henry Wade, then the district attorney of Dallas County.

After the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas ruled in her favor, Texas appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

What Did the Supreme Court Decide?

The decision was released on Jan. 22, 1973. Justice Harry A. Blackman wrote the majority opinion that found in a 7-2 ruling that Texas had violated McCorvey’s constitutional right to privacy. Individuals have protected areas or zones of privacy that encompassed abortion, the justices found. 

But the right to an abortion was not unqualified. A key was whether a fetus could survive outside a woman’s womb. 

The Texas law “sweeps too broadly,” they found. The decision struck down laws that banned abortions before the point when a fetus can survive. 

When Is Fetal Viability?

At the time of the ruling, what is called fetal viability was at about 28 weeks. Medical advances since then have pushed the point to about 24 weeks.

Roe v. Wade used trimesters to determine when a pregnancy could be regulated. During the first, almost no regulations were allowed. In the second, ones to protect a woman’s health were permitted, while in the third, abortions bans were allowed except if a mother’s life or health were at jeopardy. 

A 1992 case, Planned Parenthood v. Casey, rejected the trimester framework but left the core of Roe v. Wade intact.

What Abortion Restrictions Exist?

Since the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Roe v. Wade, many states have restricted how and where abortions may be performed. Here are some of those restrictions.

According to the Guttmacher Institute, a pro-choice research organization, 36 states require an abortion to be done by a licensed physician, 19 states say it must be in a hospital, and another 17 demand a second physician be involved at a certain stage.

Forty-three states prohibit abortions after a particular point in a pregnancy. Twenty-one states do not allow late-term abortions.

Other states limit how an abortion may be funded. Thirty-three states and the District of Columbia prohibit the use of state money except in particular circumstances, for example when a pregnancy is a result of rape or incest. 

Twenty-five states require a waiting period before an abortion may be performed.

Thirty-seven require some parental involvement in a minor’s decision.

What Would Be the Consequences of Alito’s First Draft?

Both Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey would be overturned and decisions on whether to ban or allow abortions would be returned to the states. Alito argues in his draft that the Construction does not prohibit states from regulating abortions. The right to an abortion is not rooted in the country’s history or traditions, he says.

What Happened to Norma McCorvey? 

McCorvey died at age 69 in 2017 at an assisted living center in Katy, Texas.

Over her lifetime, she was sent to a reform school, she married a man she said was abusive, she struggled with substance abuse and became involved with a woman named Connie Gonzales. 

As the plaintiff in the landmark abortion case, she was pregnant for the third time. One child was raised by her mother, another had been placed for adoption.

Later she became anti-abortion evangelical Christian and still later a Roman Catholic.

In 2009, she was arrested protesting President Barack Obama’s appearance at the University of Notre Dame and disrupting Sonia Sotomayor’s Supreme Court nomination hearing. 

Then as she was dying, she made what she called a deathbed confession: She had never fully supported the anti-abortion movement.

In the documentary “AKA Jane Roe” she says of the anti-abortion movement: “I took their money and they put me out in front of the camera and told me what to say, and that’s what I’d say.”

The ruling did not allow her to have an abortion. By the time the decision came down, she had had her child. That baby girl was also given up for adoption.

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