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Where Are They Now? : A drifter, a deadbeat and an intensely private doctor. Hardly heroes, these are the faces behind some of the most famous legal decisions in America.

August 30, 1992|S. J. DIAMOND | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Roe vs. Wade is one of this year's loudest political rallying cries--immediately familiar, and immediately dividing the audience. Already, in either party or both, someone is probably saying, "Where is Jane Roe? What happened to her? Can we get her?"

There are many such names, equally known if less divisive: Brown vs. Board of Education. Miranda vs. Arizona. Gideon vs. Wainwright. Regents of the University of California vs. Bakke. Each of these landmark litigations established some far-reaching principle of law. Over the years, they assumed almost heroic proportions.

Not so the landmark litigants themselves. Most were only minimally involved in their cases, often deriving no personal benefit because the decision came too late for them. Many handle their figurehead position poorly, wanting either more of the attention it draws or less. Others were criminals, rarely good candidates for lionization.

But it doesn't matter, and it shouldn't. The law protects the least and the worst of us as well as the best: That's why Justice wears a blindfold.

Generally, we lose track of them. Has anyone seen "Jane Roe" (abortion rights) hanging around the public debates on what she calls "my law"? Does anyone know that Ernesto Miranda (right to remain silent) was quickly re-convicted and jailed again? That Clarence Gideon (right to counsel) was buried in an unmarked grave? That Allan Bakke (affirmative action) did become a doctor? That the Brown family (school segregation) reopened its suit, saying the schools are still segregated?

* Roe vs. Wade, decided in 1973, is still unsettled--a mixed blessing for "Jane Roe," Texan Norma McCorvey, who is not yet comfortable with her position. Cast as Everywoman, she's really "the ultimate victim," says Sarah K. McCallister, an Austin contractor who was briefly McCorvey's protector, "victimized not only by the original situation but by this notoriety."

McCorvey was a drifter, a one-time carnival worker, a bar waitress and, at 22, pregnant with her third child: Her first went to her mother, her second to its father. Unable to afford an out-of-state abortion, she was resigned to adoption, but when introduced to two young lawyers eager to challenge Texas' ban on abortions, agreed to join the case. She asked what it would entail.

"We told her, 'No money,' " attorney Sarah Weddington says, " 'very little time, and you don't even have to use your own name.' "

Not just uninvolved, she was "irrelevant, a warm body," McCallister says, "and never intended to be anything else." It was a good thing: She didn't speak well--or truly, as it turned out. In a bid for sympathy, she said she'd been gang-raped, later admitting she lied. The lie didn't come out for two decades; fortunately, her lawyers had decided not to focus on it, not wanting a judgment limited to cases of rape.

In January, 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states couldn't restrict abortion in the first trimester. It was too late for McCorvey, who'd had her child and given her up for adoption.

She didn't surface until the early 1980s, apparently to answer accusations that "Jane Roe" wasn't a real person. But she stayed obscure, working as a house painter, apartment manager and house cleaner until 1987, when she was persuaded to appear at a National Organization for Women rally against Robert Bork's Supreme Court nomination.

Not exactly media-ready, McCorvey was a nervous, weepy woman heavily dependent on a series of protectors to help her handle her association with the case. Her fragility made many people uncomfortable, as did her lesbianism.

But she was becoming a public figure: NBC made a TV movie about Roe vs. Wade starring Holly Hunter, paying McCorvey and her two lawyers $90,000, with McCorvey getting 60%. And by the 1989 women's march on Washington, she was proprietary about the case, saying, "My law, our law, is in jeopardy."

There was, briefly, a Jane Roe Foundation, put together by McCallister and Texas lawyer Tom Goff to support both abortion education and McCorvey. "It could have raised money, paid her for appearances, given her a good base to operate from," Goff says. But after signing a few of the personalized letters Goff wanted to sell for $500, McCorvey lost interest.

More briefly still,, there was a Jane Roe Women's Center, with a 900 number ($9.95 a call) and at least one issue of a newsletter.

Now, whoever wants McCorvey must contact Los Angeles feminist lawyer Gloria Allred, who met her by chance and, Goff says, "literally snatched her away from us." Allred is McCorvey's attorney, providing "advice and information on cases coming down, challenges to Roe v. Wade and the significance of these changes."

They also make appearances together--at Supreme Court hearings, in Louisiana for an anti-abortion bill, at the American Bar Assn. debate on abortion rights, at the Republican convention.

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