The law is written in words, and words are not the same thing as people. In the 1973 landmark lawsuit Roe v. Wade, for example, the plaintiff “Jane Roe” was not the same person as Norma McCorvey. The latter was a poor young woman, 21 years old and long inured to abuse, seeking an end to her third pregnancy when attorneys Linda Coffee and Sarah Weddington found her, in Texas, in 1969. Vulnerable, scared, and rebuffed by Texan doctors, Norma was the perfect plaintiff.
Those lawyers created Jane out of the raw material of Norma. At the Supreme Court, their creation eventually enshrined the right of American women to reproductive freedom. But in the four years during which the case made its way through the legal system, Norma McCorvey continued to live. She never attended any of the hearings or, indeed, underwent any abortions. It wasn’t long after giving birth that Norma met Connie Gonzalez, her female partner for decades to come—an ironic twist in the case law of heterosexual reproduction that I particularly enjoy.
By the time the Roe v. Wade ruling was handed down, there were two McCorveys: Jane, the symbol of women’s inalienable reproductive rights in the face of male chauvinism, and Norma, the tough, funny young woman who found some stability in a queer relationship. Such is the fate of people the law turns into symbols: Their real selves disappear, overshadowed by the forces that use them.
The two different versions of McCorvey collided this week, with the release of the documentary AKA Jane Roe, a portrait of McCorvey in her final years that includes several brand-new interviews with her. Although she had stumped for abortion rights activists in the 1970s and ’80s, McCorvey later flipped to the anti-abortion side and became a powerful counter-symbol to the woman at the heart of Roe. In a deathbed confession, she revealed to the documentarians that evangelicals paid her to switch sides. She also said she had resented being treated snobbishly by left-wing feminists, who thought she was too uneducated to give speeches in public.