CLEVELAND, OH — June 4, 2020 — Both sides of the abortion debate were stunned recently when a new documentary on the life of Norma McCorvey claimed to reveal that the late pro-life activist’s renunciation of her prior work in favor of legalized abortion was disingenuous. McCorvey, the pseudonymous plaintiff “Jane Roe” in Roe v. Wade, spent the final decades of her life working to overturn the controversial 1973 Supreme Court decision that bore her name. But when making statements on camera shortly before her 2017 death, McCorvey appeared comfortable with abortion and indicated that her association with the pro-life movement was merely a mutually beneficial business relationship that she entered into for financial reasons.
Many of McCorvey’s friends in the pro-life movement are questioning the circumstances surrounding her apparent confession. Some have even suggested that pecuniary considerations lay behind McCorvey’s about face (the documentary’s producer has confirmed that McCorvey financially benefitted from the documentary’s use of her personal photographs). Regardless, McCorvey’s videotaped statements have damaged her reputation as a pro-life witness.
And while abortion proponents and opponents are quick to reject the notion that any one person’s opinion should affect the debate in any dispositive way, the pro-life movement would be wise to shift attention to the plaintiff in the other landmark abortion case decided by the Supreme Court on January 22, 1973.
Sandra Cano, alias “Mary Doe,” never reached Norma McCorvey’s level of fame, but she was the plaintiff in the arguably more significant abortion case. Doe v. Bolton featured a holding similar to its more discussed companion case but went further in defining the exception that prevented states from fully proscribing the abortion of fetuses, post-viability. According to the Court, states must permit abortions, even of viable fetuses, if a physician judges it necessary to protect the woman’s health.
The Court in Doe adopted a definition of “woman’s health” that encompassed anything relevant to the woman’s wellbeing, including emotional and psychological stress. The broadness of the definition has thus far prevented states from enacting effective late term abortion bans and will continue to impede such efforts absent a change in Supreme Court precedent.
Like the holdings in Roe and Doe, the lives of Norma McCorvey and Sandra Cano had many parallels, but were not identical. Both were of similar age and suffered from poverty and abuse. As teenagers, both endured the wreckage of failed marriages. Both had given birth to several children before, upon becoming pregnant again, they came into contact with activist lawyers whom they later claimed misled them into serving as plaintiffs in litigation to overturn existing state restrictions on abortion. Ironically, neither woman ever ended up having an abortion and both gave birth to daughters, the lives of whom their mothers’ respective female lawyers argued were detrimental to the advancement of women.
But unlike McCorvey, Cano claimed to have never supported abortion rights nor sought an abortion for herself. She even fled her home state of Georgia to avoid taking part in the abortion her attorney had arranged for her. Shortly after the Roe and Doe decisions were handed down, she began seeking ways to reverse them. Eventually, both Cano and McCorvey would petition the Supreme Court in an unsuccessful attempt to overturn their eponymous rulings handed down by an all-male court purporting to act in the best interests of women.
Converts make valuable spokespersons for a cause because, having fully experienced both sides of an issue, they exude an aura of expertise. But the strength of that aura is inversely proportional to the frequency of vacillations on the issue made by the spokesperson. McCorvey’s posthumously revealed statements call into question her commitment to any cause greater than her own self-interest. Cano, who died in 2014, managed to avoid giving anyone reason to doubt the sincerity of her convictions. The similarities between the two women will forever link the names Jane Roe and Mary Doe in American constitutional law. But what made Norma McCorvey different from Sandra Cano is what should be remembered.
Paul F. Petrick is an attorney in Cleveland, Ohio.