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Seven Important Facts to Know About Roe v. Wade

Ryan Mayer

On February 18, 2017, the “Roe” of Roe v. Wade infamy passed away. Her real name was Norma McCorvey and although the Supreme Court decision bears her pseudonym, few outside of pro-life circles might realize that she died a pro-life advocate. Here are seven little known facts about the case that made her famous.

1. “Roe” never had an abortion.

Even though Roe v. Wade was the defining abortion case in the United States, McCorvey never actually had the abortion. The case took three years to reach the Supreme Court, during which time McCorvey gave birth to her baby and put her up for adoption.

2. There was laughter during oral arguments.

During the oral arguments, Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart was able to get lawyer Sarah Weddington, who was arguing for Roe, to admit that if it could be shown that the unborn is a person, and thus deserving of legal protection under the fourteenth amendment, then the entire case for legal abortion would fall apart. That, or worse, that it could be used to justify killing born children if the mother so wished. Weddington laughed as she admitted this. Here is the exchange:

Justice Potter Stewart: Well, if it were established that an unborn fetus is a person within the protection of the Fourteenth Amendment, you would have almost an impossible case here, would you not?

Weddington: I would have a very difficult case. [Laughter]

Justice Potter Stewart: You certainly would because you’d have the same kind of thing you’d have to say that this would be the equivalent to after the child was born.

Weddington: That’s right.

Justice Potter Stewart: If the mother thought that it bothered her health having the child around, she could have it killed. Isn’t that correct?

Weddington: That’s correct.

3. The decision in Roe v. Wade is poorly argued.

The majority decision in Roe contains some stunningly poor argumentation. The State of Texas argued that, because life begins at conception, the unborn are entitled to legal protection under the law. The Court responded,

We need not resolve the difficult question of when life begins. When those trained in the respective disciplines of medicine, philosophy, and theology are unable to arrive at any consensus, the judiciary, at this point in the development of man’s knowledge, is not in a position to speculate as to the answer.

This is an incoherent line of reasoning for two reasons. First, the State of Texas is right: life begins at conception. This simple biological reality is not a “difficult question” and was known even in 1973. Second, the Court concluded that, because one may not know when life begins, abortion should, in the name of privacy, be legal. Even if one is not convinced as to whether the unborn is a human person, that’s actually a good reason not to kill one. To borrow an analogy from Peter Kreeft, if a hunter sees something moving in the brush but isn’t sure if it is a deer or his fellow hunter, wouldn’t that be a good reason to not shoot into the brush?

The majority opinion’s line of reasoning fails both basic biology and logic. Even Edward Lazarus, who clerked for Justice Blackmun, remarked that “As a matter of constitutional interpretation and judicial method, Roe borders on the indefensible … Justice Blackmun’s opinion provides essentially no reasoning in support of its holding.”

4. The majority decision received a blistering dissent.

Roe v. Wade was decided 7-2. The majority decision in Roe v. Wade, written by Justice Harry Blackmun, was based primarily on a so-called “right to privacy” under the fourteenth amendment. The Court admitted that the Constitution does not explicitly contain a “right to privacy” but stated that such a right is implied in the “penumbras” (shadows) of certain sections. The dissenting opinions, written by Justices Byron White and William Rehnquist, were in total disagreement. White wrote,

I find nothing in the language or history of the Constitution to support the Court’s judgment. The Court simply fashions and announces a new constitutional right for pregnant women and, with scarcely any reason or authority for its action, invests that right with sufficient substance to override most existing state abortion statutes.

Rehnquist had this to say concerning the applicability of the fourteenth amendment to any so-called “right to privacy” that might extend to striking down state abortion laws: “To reach its result, the Court necessarily has had to find within the scope of the Fourteenth Amendment a right that was apparently completely unknown to the drafters of the Amendment.”

Rehnquist also pointed out that the Court knew “only that plaintiff Roe at the time of filing her complaint was a pregnant woman…she may have been in her last trimester of pregnancy as of the date the complaint was filed.” In other words, the court’s decision may not have even applied to the plaintiff’s actual situation.

5. Roe v. Wade was almost overturned in 1992.

A pro-choice refrain is that if Roe v. Wade were to be overturned, abortion would become illegal throughout the United States. What Roe and Doe v. Bolton, which was Roe’s companion case, actually did was limit a state’s ability to make all abortions illegal. If Roe were overturned tomorrow, legal questions surrounding abortion would become the prerogative of the states. Roe v. Wade was in fact almost overturned in 1992 in Planned Parenthood v. Casey. However, in that decision, the Court argued the following:

For two decades of economic and social developments, people have organized intimate relationships and made choices that define their views of themselves and their places in society, in reliance on the availability of abortion in the event that contraception should fail. The ability of women to participate equally in the economic and social life of the Nation has been facilitated by their ability to control their reproductive lives. The Constitution serves human values, and while the effect of reliance on Roe cannot be exactly measured, neither can the certain cost of overruling Roe for people who have ordered their thinking and living around that case be dismissed.

In other words, the Court argued that Americans need abortion on demand because they base their sex lives around the assumption that contraceptives fail and abortion will be available when it does. The Supreme Court of the United States essentially admitted that abortion and contraception are, as St. John Paul II observed, “fruits of the same tree” (Evangelium Vitae, 13).

6. McCorvey was coerced.

McCorvey initially claimed that she was pregnant as a result of rape, but later admitted that the claim had been fabricated to make her case more sensational. McCorvey’s case was taken up by Linda Coffee of Women’s Equity Action League, and Sarah Weddington, both of whom were looking for pregnant women whose situations they could exploit for challenging existing abortion laws. McCorvey would later state that she felt she had been coerced and used for the purpose of bringing a case before the Court that would strike down states’ legal strictures regarding abortion, something McCorvey herself had no interest in.

7. McCorvey became a pro-life advocate and a devout Catholic.

Norma McCorvey eventually became a Christian, left her job at an abortion clinic, and would go on to become a powerful pro-life voice. McCorvey had the following to say about a moment of conversion:

I was sitting in O.R.’s offices when I noticed a fetal development poster. The progression was so obvious…something in that poster made me lose my breath…It’s as if blinders just fell off my eyes and I suddenly understood the truth—that’s a baby! I felt crushed under the truth of this realization…All those years I was wrong. Signing that affidavit, I was wrong. Working in an abortion clinic, I was wrong. No more of this first trimester, second trimester, third trimester stuff. Abortion—at any point—was wrong. It was so clear.

She would later say, “I think it’s safe to say that the entire abortion industry is based on a lie…I am dedicated to spending the rest of my life undoing the law that bears my name.” McCorvey became a Catholic in 1998 and was received into the Church by Fr. Frank Pavone of Priests for Life. Now that she has passed, we pray that Norma finds rest and eternal peace in the presence of the Lord and Author of Life.


Photo: Norma McCorvey (Jane Roe) and her lawyer, Gloria Allred, on the steps of the Supreme Court, 1989.

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