Roe’s Baby

Most women know that Roe v Wade is threatened. A new law in Texas bans abortion after about six weeks and puts enforcement in the hands of private citizens. The Supreme Court, with a 6–3 conservative majority, is scheduled to take up the question of abortion in its upcoming term. It could well overturn Roe. I think I did know but was reminded today that the baby at the heart of the long drawn out legal case was put up for adoption. Sharing an excerpt from a story in The Atlantic – The Roe Baby.

Jane Roe, was a Dallas waitress named Norma McCorvey. Norma won her case. But she never had the abortion. On January 22, 1973, when the Supreme Court finally handed down its decision, she had long since given birth—and relinquished her child for adoption.

Norma’s personal life was complex. She had casual affairs with men, and one brief marriage at age 16. She bore three children, each of them placed for adoption. But she slept far more often with women, and worked in lesbian bars. Norma could be salty and fun, but she was also self-absorbed and dishonest, and she remained, until her death in 2017, at the age of 69, fundamentally unhappy.

In 1981, Norma briefly volunteered for the National Organization for Women in Dallas. Thereafter, slowly, she became an activist—working at first with pro-choice groups and then, after becoming a born-again Christian in 1995, with pro-life groups. Being born-again did not give her peace; pro-life leaders demanded that she publicly renounce her homosexuality (which she did, at great personal cost). 

Norma believed that abortion ought to be legal for precisely three months after conception, a position she stated publicly after both the Roe decision and her religious awakening. She was ambivalent about adoption, too. Playgrounds were a source of distress: Empty, they reminded Norma of Roe; full, they reminded her of the children she had let go.

The author of a new book – The Family Roe – Joshua Prager says – In time, I would come to know Shelley and her sisters well, along with their birth mother, Norma. Their lives resist the tidy narratives told on both sides of the abortion divide. To better represent that divide in my book, I also wrote about an abortion provider, a lawyer, and a pro-life advocate who are as important to the larger story of abortion in America as they are unknown. Together, their stories allowed me to give voice to the complicated realities of Roe v. Wade—to present, as the legal scholar Laurence Tribe has urged, “the human reality on each side of the ‘versus.’”

The lawyer for her adoption did not tell the adoptive couple anything more than that she had two half sisters. But he did not identify them, or Norma, or say anything about the Roe lawsuit that Norma had filed three months earlier. When the Roe case was decided, in 1973, the adoptive parents were oblivious of its connection to their daughter who was then 2 and a half.

Shelly knew she was adopted. As she grew older, she wished to know who had brought her into being: her heart-shaped face and blue eyes, her shyness and penchant for pink, her frequent anxiety—which gripped her when her father began to drink heavily. The adoptive parents fought. Doors slammed. Shelley watched her mother issue second chances, then watched her father squander them. One day in 1980, as Shelley remembered, “it was just that he was no longer there.” Shelley was 10. 

In high school, in the city of Burien, outside Seattle, Shelley had a boyfriend who had also been adopted. Reminds me of my own parents story – high school sweethearts, both adopted. Shelley’s hands began to shake. She suffered from depression. Eventually, she came to understand that her symptoms preceded her birth. “When someone’s pregnant with a baby,” she reflected, “and they don’t want that baby, that person develops knowing they’re not wanted.” 

An investigator who accomplished adoptee reunions with their birth mothers was given the case of finding Shelley by The National Enquirer. She was able to track her down through birth records (Norma had supplied the necessary information). She waited in a parking lot in Kent, Washington, where she knew Shelley lived. When she saw Shelley walk by, the investigator introduced herself and told Shelley that she was an adoption investigator sent by her birth mother. Shelley felt a rush of joy: The woman who had let her go now wanted to know her. She began to cry. Wow! she thought. Wow! She told Shelley that “her mother was famous—but not a movie star or a rich person.” Rather, her birth mother was “connected to a national case that had changed law.” 

At their second meeting, the investigator handed Shelley a recent article about Norma in People magazine, and the reality sank in. “She threw it down and ran out of the room.” When Shelley returned, she was “shaking all over and crying.” All her life, Shelley had wanted to know the facts of her birth. Having idly mused as a girl that her birth mother was a beautiful actor, she now knew that her birth mother was synonymous with abortion, something she was against.

When told the other person at the second meeting was on a deadline and writing an article for the Enquirer, Shelley and her adoptive mother abruptly left. “Here’s my chance at finding out who my birth mother was,” she said, “and I wasn’t even going to be able to have control over it because I was being thrown into the Enquirer.”

Instead Shelley was able to arrange a call directly to Norma. Norma didn’t mention abortion. She told Shelley that she’d given her up because, Shelley recalled, “I knew I couldn’t take care of you.” She also told Shelley that she had wondered about her “always.” But later, Shelley made clear that a day for an in person reunion might never come. “I’m glad to know that my birth mother is alive,” she was quoted in the story that the Enquirer eventually published as saying, “and that she loves me—but I’m really not ready to see her. And I don’t know when I’ll ever be ready—if ever.” She added: “In some ways, I can’t forgive her … I know now that she tried to have me aborted.”

Shelley had long considered abortion wrong, but her connection to Roe had led her to reexamine the issue. It now seemed to her that abortion law ought to be free of the influences of religion and politics. Religious certitude left her uncomfortable. And, she reflected, “I guess I don’t understand why it’s a government concern.”

Shelley never did meet her mother, Norma. She died while Shelley still struggled with her identity as the Roe baby.