ATLANTA — They tell strikingly similar personal histories. Both say they were born to dirt-poor families in the South, both were high-school dropouts who were married as teen-agers to abusive men and, for much of their lives, both have led turbulent, Gypsy-like existences.
Sixteen years ago, they both also were immortalized in American law in companion cases--the well-known Roe vs. Wade and the obscure but no less judicially important Doe vs. Bolton--which established a constitutional right for women to have abortions.
Today, however, Norma Nelson McCorvey of Dallas and Sandra Race Cano of Atlanta, both 41, are on opposite sides of the highly contentious and often volatile abortion issue.
McCorvey, the "Jane Roe" of Roe vs. Wade, is a passionate defender of the 1973 Supreme Court ruling that she is fond of calling "my law."
"I put my life on the line every day, but I can't think of one person who really believes in what they believe in and doesn't," said McCorvey, a diminutive, peppery woman who is known as "Pixie" to her friends. "I believe in choice. I'm pro-choice and pro-family."
Cano (pronounced KAH-noh), the "Mary Doe" of Doe vs. Bolton, is an outspoken foe of abortion who contends that her role in helping to legalize the operation was a mistake that she has regretted since the day the Supreme Court handed down its landmark decision.
She contends that she was manipulated by her attorneys in the case bearing her pseudonym and that she never wanted an abortion, never got an abortion and has always opposed abortion.
"I was plain old used," said Cano, a soft-spoken woman with an engaging, down-home manner. "I never had any idea of what Doe vs. Bolton was about. I was kept in the dark by my former attorneys. I'm working now to get the case reconsidered and reversed. I want to stop abortions."
The Supreme Court may spare her the effort. The high tribunal is expected to rule, possibly as early as this week, in a case originating in Missouri that could restore the authority of states to restrict or even outlaw abortion.
The case, known as Webster vs. Reproductive Health Services, is widely considered as the broadest challenge to abortion rights since the court's historic 7-2 votes in the Roe and Doe decisions. Among other things, the Missouri law declares that life begins at conception and bans the use of public funds and facilities to perform abortions.
In the two months since Webster was argued before the nine justices, the abortion issue has become even more heated, marked by rallies, demonstrations and continuing debate. Of all the words that have been spoken in that time, few are more compelling than those of the women behind the cases that lit the original fire under abortion rights--Norma McCorvey and Sandra Cano.
Although both have become symbols of the opposite ends of the polarizing controversy--as each readily acknowledged in interviews last week--it did not start out that way. Nineteen years ago, when their cases were filed, both were troubled young women, seemingly destined to be no more than faces in the crowd.
McCorvey was a ticket seller for a carnival freak show who was unmarried and pregnant for the third time. Cano, who was married to a man later convicted of kidnaping and child molestation, said she had gone to the Atlanta Legal Aid Society months before for help in getting a divorce and unwittingly ended up as Mary Doe.
But, they both agree, their stories really begin long before then.
McCorvey, the daughter of an Army private and a waitress who were divorced when she was 13, dropped out of high school in Dallas at 16. At 17, she married 24-year-old Woody McCorvey, a twice-divorced sheet-metal worker whom she had known only about six weeks before their marriage.
Moved to Los Angeles
The newlyweds moved from Dallas to Los Angeles--"I always dreamed of being a movie star," she recalled last week during a telephone interview from the office of Los Angeles activist lawyer Gloria Allred. A month after reaching California, McCorvey learned that she was pregnant.
But when she told her husband the news, she said, he accused her of cheating on him and "knocked me from the kitchen to the living room."
When Woody left, she changed the locks, sold some personal belongings and moved back with her mother in Dallas. She worked in a bar until her daughter, whom she named Cheryl, was born on May 24, 1965.
Eventually, she relinquished custody of Cheryl to her mother and began working a succession of odd jobs.
In 1966, she found herself pregnant again, but she did not want the child--another girl--and agreed to turn it over to the father, letting him adopt her. She also agreed never to try to contact him or the girl after that--a bargain she said that she has lived up to ever since.
"I have no idea where he is or where she is," she said, but "if she has any of my blood, she's probably fighting for some worthy cause."