June 30, 2022 7:20:58 pm
The recent Supreme Court judgment in the US might bring a smile to Norma McCorvey, wherever she is. McCorvey accidentally gave reproductive justice to millions of women: She was the anonymous Jane Roe in the historic 1973 Roe vs Wade judgment of the US Supreme Court that gave women the right to abortion, not as a reproductive right but on grounds of privacy. Wade was the District Attorney of the state of Texas where this case was filed in 1969.
Barely educated, McCorvey got pregnant at age 17 for the first time and had a baby. This baby, a girl, was adopted by her mother although Norma claimed later that her mother had stolen her baby. It was not too soon before she had another baby girl, also given up for adoption. There were alcohol abuse issues, and also drug-related issues.
McCorvey blamed her parents, who had converted to Jehova’s Witnesses, for her pregnancy: They had not taught her how babies were created. When she was pregnant for the third time, she was 21 years old. She was approached by a progressive lawyer to file a case against the state of Texas which would not permit abortion. She claimed later that she agreed to be Roe because the lawyers had got her drunk with too much beer and just a slice of pizza.
Even after her case was filed, McCorvey had different stories about her pregnancy. She sometimes claimed she had been raped. But the lawyers decided not to use the rape story. Instead, they focused on the right to abortion.
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But by then the case had moved into the Supreme Court, and to wider actors and ideologies and was also subject to a simple contingency of history: The appointment of Supreme Court judges in the US.
McCorvey delivered her third child, another daughter, given up for adoption. She was bitter with her lawyers. She claimed she would not have been Roe if she had known that the judgment would take years to come.
Her life turned upside down with the Roe Vs Wade judgment in 1973. She appeared in marches of the pro-choice movement and appeared on television and started earning money for her appearances. This was seductive and took her away from what she was doing: Cleaning homes. She was a lioness of the feminist movement, briefly. She constantly felt unappreciated by the feminist movement because she was not educated enough. She also felt every woman who had a legal abortion after 1973 owed something to her, and that she shouldn’t live as insecurely as she did. In short, she wanted money. But for the first time in her life, she was in a stable relationship, a lesbian relationship.
Life works in strange ways, and some call it destiny. But there was also a surge of Evangelical Right-wing Christianity around this time, crystallised by the very judgment. These people believed that their earlier staying away from politics was wrong, that women’s liberation, contraception, and sexual liberation had brought god’s wrath, HIV and AIDS. The anti-abortion or the so-called pro-life movement rallied around Ronald Reagan. Reagan, who had been pro-choice, deftly brought together Christian fundamentalists, neo-liberals, and anti-abortionists, who were otherwise liberals. He appointed judges to the Supreme Court who were likely to overthrow Roe.
Norma McCorvey had now joined the anti-abortion movement. As a born-again Christian, she was instructed that lesbianism was not acceptable. She left her love to work in the anti-abortion movement.
Reagan also brought in the first Gag Rules, banning countries from receiving aid from the US, if their policies permitted abortion. These deeply affected countries of Sub-Saharan Africa, especially, battling an AIDS pandemic, because USAID rules did not allow for condom purchase too.
Every time a Republican has been voted president, a Global Gag Rule is quickly put in place. Every Democratic President – Bill Clinton and Barrack Obama — has set this aside. But the Democrats have not had majorities in the Senate to have their appointees confirmed in the Supreme Court.
The Evangelicals were urging McCorvey to find her third child, who would-have-been-aborted if Roe existed. They enabled the publication of her book. What a PR victory that would be for the anti-abortion movement. So she hired a DNA detective. This detective, paid for by a news channel, identified this woman — Shelley, married with children and Norma McCorvey’s third child.
McCorvey had ambitions of joint appearances on TV channels and a lot of money. To her credit, Shelly declined to be identified. She met her sisters but refused to meet her biological mother who was dying.
McCorvey died unsung, a deeply bitter woman, one with no convictions, no affections, self-absorbed and angry. She was described as a hopeless case.
The irony of history is that this hopeless woman gave hope to other women, a hope for reproductive justice that the current Supreme Court has just overturned.
Just chance? Six of the nine Supreme Court judges are Catholics, who constitute 20 per cent of the population of the US. But one of the three dissenting judges is also a Catholic. Two of the six in the majority judgment have been accused of lying like Norma McCorvey: Thomas Clarence and Brett Kavanaugh, both also accused of sexual misdemeanours before their confirmation.
It is clearly not religion, but misogyny that is at the heart of this judgment — misogyny that Norma McCorvey was a victim of but also helped spread.
The writer, a medical doctor specialising in public health, is a former professor at the Centre of Social Medicine and Community Health, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi
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