Back in the ‘60s, the health center at the University of Texas did not give out contraceptives — so a group of women (and a couple of men) set up a counseling center to help women get access. But they quickly realized that women were coming to them looking for information about where they could get an abortion. They were afraid they would get prosecuted as accomplices as abortion was a crime at the time, so they asked me to do the legal research part. Basically they could really only counsel people without fear if the current abortion law was declared unconstitutional, and that’s when they asked me if I would take the case challenging the Texas law.
I was just out of law school, and I remember asking if they thought it would be better to get someone with more federal law experience than I had, and they asked about my fee. When I said I would do it for free, they told me I was their attorney. Women were doing whatever we could to try to break through the barriers that surrounded them. We were raising money though bake sales.
I was working at the law school part-time while I was also working on Roe vs. Wade, and I’d gone to talk to a professor because I was worried about finding a plaintiff. Specifically, the issue was no woman could stay pregnant long enough for the Supreme Court to decide the case. That professor said the solution was to file it as a class action lawsuit, on behalf of all women who were, or might become, pregnant and need the option of abortion. That’s where Norma McCorvey comes into the picture.
"Women were doing whatever we could to try to break through the barriers that surrounded them. We were raising money though bake sales."
Linda [Coffee, Weddington’s co-counsel] was doing bankruptcy law in Dallas at the time. One of her friends was a lawyer who did lots of adoption cases. Women would come to him and say, "I'm pregnant. I don't want to raise this child. I want to put it up for adoption," and he would work with them from there. Norma McCorvey was one of those women. She was pregnant, and she had already had one child who her mother had taken from her, on the basis she was unfit to raise a child. She did not want to raise this child she was pregnant with. So that lawyer sent her to Linda, and then Linda called me.
She was a fit. We needed a plaintiff who was pregnant, and Norma was. We needed a plaintiff we could demonstrate had difficulties with prior pregnancy, and in this case we could show that, as well as the fact that Norma had had some various difficulties in her own life. We explained to Norma that we would pay all the expenses, and that we would not be paid for our time, so it wouldn't cost her anything. We also explained that she could be a person who was not known to the public. That’s how we came up with the name. It was the era of the Vietnam War, when John Doe was a familiar way to refer to men, so “Jane Roe” was in keeping with the times.
Years later, when Norma came out against abortion… Well, you wish it weren’t true. But what can you do? I read an interview once with her former partner, Connie Gonzales, who said that Norma was a woman who was focused on herself. And when Norma saw a path for something that was good for herself, that’s what she would do.
After Roe vs. Wade, Norma had been working at an abortion clinic in Dallas, and an anti-abortion group landed the office next door. Philip Benham was the head of it. He tried to pay special attention to Norma, to tell her that God loved her and that they could start an organized effort to bring other people to the conclusion of being opposed to abortion. The plan was they could go to various churches, she could speak first for a few minutes and then he would speak for a longer time, and then they could divide the money. Norma was with Benham for several years, traveling and doing speeches, and then she got mad at him, according to what I've read. At that point, she decided to convert to Catholicism and work with a Catholic priest, basically doing the same kind of thing, traveling and speaking and and splitting income. Clearly, you wish that wasn’t the case…
The truth is, Roe vs. Wade made abortion legal in 1973, and the opposition has been trying to change that ever since. They’ve been unsuccessful — so far. But I’m concerned about the Supreme Court. I worry about who would be put on the bench if there was a vacancy. Now we have a president who speaks out against abortion, an attorney general who talks about abortion in very disapproving words, and a lot of the people who were elected to office, either at the national or at the state level, who are very opposed to abortion. When I started working on Roe vs. Wade, the national scene in that era was basically pro-choice. Barry Goldwater — the Republican running for president — was pro-choice. Gerald Ford and his wife Betty Ford were pro-choice, as was the governor of Texas at the time ...
For some women, it’s practically like where we were even before Roe vs. Wade.
When the Democratic Party considered dropping its candidate litmus test on abortion last year, women were right to be angry: For us, there is a sense of danger, and of not wanting people to go through what we went through before Roe vs. Wade. People thank me for what I did with that case, but I keep saying: We’ve got to keep working. Especially for young women. For example: In Texas, the law used to be that if you were under 18, you had to get your parents’ permission to have an abortion. Through an organization called Jane’s Due Process, we got that changed: Now these women can get a judicial bypass, meaning they can prove to a judge that they are mature enough to make their own decision.
We've gotten a lot of volunteer attorneys representing those young women, and we've raised a good bit of money to help them get to a place where they can get a legal abortion. But here we are, still trying to raise money for women to get the procedure, researching information so they know where to go, how to fight the legal complications the legislature has put in place. For some women, it’s practically like where we were even before Roe vs. Wade.
As told to Elizabeth Kiefer. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.