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Review: I am Roe


Freedom of Choice in the US affiliates with Roe v Wade (1973), the Supreme Court case that not only landmarked a leap forward in women’s rights but also advanced the freedom to access legal, safe, and constitutional abortions. Fast forward to today, while the legacy of the case was upheld for over 40 years, we see a decline in confidence and importance of this monumental case. Ending Roe v Wade is part of a long campaign to roll back democracy in itself. Once labelled as judicial activism, it is now claimed to be unconstitutional. American democracy is at a breaking point, the Supreme Court ready to overturn Roe v Wade, with 8 states enforcing pre-Roe abortion bans. A radical minority is accumulating even more power, threatening to undermine equal rights under the law and basic human freedom. “I Am Roe” is a powerful reminder of what a woman has endured to get us here. 

Jane Roe and Norma McCorvey are the same person. The unbridgeable gulf between myth and reality is another paradox of a political system, marked by a protected institutional lie. Many details of Norma’s  story only unfolded 10 years ago, after McCorvey went public as Jane Roe. Her long standing legacy, of a somewhat fictional, private woman in one flash became overt. 

There is nothing romantic, classy, chic or savvy about Norma McCorvey’s story. It is almost the polar opposite, the authority one thinks she possesses through her story, with each chapter getting more personal, innocent, intimate, is almost painful. The image of Jane Roe as the Joan of Arc feminist fades the more honest her story gets- an uneducated innocent from a rural town in Texas who courageously took her fight for an abortion all the way to the United States Supreme Court, and won? This is a myth.

Norma McCorvey is a shadow from the dark side of the American dream, the wrong side of the tracks. Raised in extremely desperate circumstances, she voluntarily gave two of her children up for adoption and lost custody of the third. A lesbian whose first 40 years were spent in retrospective jobs and physically abusive relationships, making a living as a cleaning woman. This is the reality.

As Norma McCorvey began public interviews and testimonies, she gradually began to disclose parts of her past that she had long kept hidden to protect herself as well the pro-choice movement— admitting, that in her Roe testimony she lied about being raped. In the first sections, she gives historical background on abortion rights, along with pleas for reproductive justice. However, while narrating the events of her life with refreshing, or arguably terrifying honesty, transparency and courage, she acknowledges that she does not fit many people’s idea of a historical role model.

“I wasn’t the wrong person to become Jane Roe,” Ms. McCorvey writes. “I wasn’t the right person to become Jane Roe. I was just the person who became Jane Roe, of Roe v. Wade. And my life story, warts and all, was a little piece of history.”

Being working class, being openly gay most of her adult life, and battling alcohol and drug addiction would not have made the same impact as the persona she hid behind, and that is a fact. What inevitably happened was, those who glorified Jane Roe, no longer held the same respect for her or her case.  In the detailing of such daunting events, the moments of positivity seem so fresh, such as her account of the community of girls and women in her reform school, or the meeting of her life partner while shoplifting from a convenience store. I Am Roe is a fascinating exploration of how one woman negotiates being a symbol and being herself. 

The interviews Norma McCorvey gave in the early 1980’s resulted in death threats at the Dallas house where she lived with her lover, Connie Gonzalez. These days, she does some lecturing on abortion rights, but she still works cleaning houses. Her role in shaping the feminist movement, is perhaps not personified by the symbol we would choose, but is a symbol nonetheless. 

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