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Abortion Ruling by Supreme Court Had an Unlikely Catalyst

February 02, 1989|JOSEPH N. BELL

We're going to be reading and hearing a lot this year about Roe vs. Wade, the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion.

The current Supreme Court plans to review that decision and President Bush has indicated that his Administration will push hard for repeal. And last week, a story in the Calendar section of The Times carried the announcement by the president of NBC-TV that the network will offer a TV movie based on the life of the "Jane Roe" in the decision.

She's an Oklahoman whose real name is Norma McCovey and she is one of the most unlikely humans imaginable to have been the catalyst for such a landmark decision.

For a brief period, I knew Norma McCovey very well--or thought I did--and I was startled by the statement in the Calendar story attributed to an NBC executive that "she lied" when she said her pregnancy grew out of a rape. I have on tape 20 minutes of the most graphic description of that rape this side of "The Accused," and if McCovey indeed made it up, she should be running NBC's entertainment division instead of Brandon Tartikoff.

I met her a few months after the original Supreme Court decision came down--and many years before her identity was known publicly. I was sent to Dallas by Good Housekeeping magazine to do a profile on the two young women attorneys who argued Roe vs. Wade.

They were a fascinating pair, both under 30, both dealing with their first major case and the only two practicing women attorneys to graduate from the University of Texas Law School in 1965. But there the similarities stopped. Sarah Weddington--who later became President Jimmy Carter's protocol chief and is presently carving out a political career in Texas--was politically liberal, aggressive and strongly feminist. Linda Coffee was quiet, conservative and strongly influenced by her Baptist upbringing. But both young women felt strongly that--as Coffee expressed it to me--"legally and morally, this is a matter of individual conscience. This ruling doesn't require any doctor to perform an abortion or any patient to have one."

Norma McCovey came into the view of these two young attorneys when she went to a doctor in Dallas, told him she had been raped and asked for an abortion. He said that wasn't possible under Texas law and referred her to an adoption attorney, who knew Weddington and Coffee were looking for a case to test the Texas abortion laws.

After several years of volunteering in a problem pregnancy center, Coffee and Weddington were determined to do everything in their power to make abortion a matter of "individual conscience" for women, and they filed an action on behalf of McCovey challenging the constitutionality of the Texas abortion law--a law, incidentally, that she had obeyed, bearing the child and then giving it up for adoption.

McCovey had been born in a small Oklahoma town where her father, an Army technician, was stationed at the time. As she recounted it to me, she had a frightful childhood, wandering from school to school and town to town in an angry and stressful household. She was 10 when her parents divorced, and she said that after being rejected by both, she quit school at 16, found a job and moved out. She admitted frequent trouble with juvenile authorities in Dallas--where both parents had settled--as a truant and runaway.

As a carhop in a Dallas drive-in, she was swept away by a young customer who told her he was a prospering rock singer. They married when McCovey was still 16 and went to Hollywood. She said that when she told her husband she was pregnant, he beat her and she used a few dollars she had hidden and bought a bus ticket back to Dallas. After being persuaded to sign the child over to her mother and stepfather, she said, they kicked her out and she joined a traveling carnival. That's where she was raped, she told me.

At the time we talked, she was living in Dallas with a woman friend who was enormously protective of her and suspicious of me. It took a long time to win their confidence, but once that happened, the three of us talked at great length. Now it appears she might have been fictionalizing at least part of what she told me. Or is it NBC she's kidding?

She wrote to me for a couple of years after the story appeared. This woman who had never been allowed a sense of importance was terribly proud of the role she played in winning women the freedom to control their own bodies. "I'm glad," she told me, "that women now have the chance to choose not to have a child, regardless of how they got in that condition. I'm glad I had a part in providing them that option--the chance to start over."

Sarah Weddington came to UC Irvine last year to speak, and we renewed our acquaintance. She told me Norma had sold her story to NBC but said there was some confusion in facts that needed to be cleared up.

The Times story quoted the NBC spokesman as saying that "we have been very careful, very diligent in giving voice to both (pro and con abortion) positions." I hope they haven't been so diligent that they lose the impact of Norma McCovey's few moments on the center stage of history.

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