NORMA McCORVEY, ‘ROE’ IN ROE v. WADE
Norma McCorvey, the anonymous plaintiff in Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion in the United States, reshaping the nation’s social and political landscapes and inflaming one of the most divisive controversies of the past half-century, died on Saturday in Katy, Tex. She was 69.
Her death, at an assisted-living home, was confirmed by Joshua Prager, a New York journalist who is writing a book about the Roe v. Wade decision and had interviewed her extensively. He said the cause was heart failure.
Since the ruling, perhaps 50 million legal abortions have been performed in the United States, although later court decisions and new state and federal laws have imposed restrictions, and abortions have declined with the wide use of contraceptives. Theological, ethical and legal debates about abortion continue in religious circles, governing bodies and political campaigns, and they have influenced elections, legislation and the lives of ordinary people through films, books, periodicals, the internet and other forums.
At the heart of it all, Ms. McCorvey — known as Jane Roe in the court papers — became an almost mythological figure to millions of Americans, more a symbol of what they believed in than who she was: a young Dallas woman lifted by chance into a national spotlight she never sought and tried for years to avoid, then pulled by the forces of politics to one side of the abortion conflict, then by religion to the other.
Her early life had been a Dickensian nightmare. By her own account, she was the unwanted child of a broken home, a ninth-grade dropout who was raped repeatedly by a relative, and a homeless runaway and thief consigned to reform school. She was married at 16, divorced and left pregnant three times by different men. She had bouts of suicidal depression, she said.
She was 22 and pregnant when she joined the abortion rights struggle, claiming later that she had not really understood what it was all about. When she emerged from anonymity a decade later, strangers shrieked “baby killer” and spat at her. There were death threats. One night, shotgun blasts shattered the windows of her home.
But she attended rallies and protest marches in support of abortion rights, worked in women’s clinics, spoke to crowds, wrote two autobiographies and was the subject of a documentary and an avalanche of newspaper and magazine articles. She became a national celebrity of sorts.
She also switched sides, from abortion rights advocate to anti-abortion campaigner. She underwent two religious conversions, as a born-again Christian and as a Roman Catholic, and became in her last decades a staunch foe of abortion, vowing to undo Roe v. Wade, testifying in Congress and bitterly attacking Barack Obama when he ran for president and then re-election.
She was never the idealized Jane Roe crusader many Americans visualized. Some observers said she became a pawn used by both sides in the maelstrom of the abortion wars as her public views shifted from one side to the other. In her first book, “I Am Roe: My Life, Roe v. Wade, and Freedom of Choice” (1994, with Andy Meisler), she offered what was perhaps her own most objective self-assessment.
“I wasn’t the wrong person to become Jane Roe,” she said. “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.”
Plucked from obscurity in 1970 by Sarah Weddington and Linda Coffee, two young Dallas lawyers who wanted to challenge Texas laws that prohibited abortions except to save a mother’s life, Ms. McCorvey, five months pregnant with her third child, signed an affidavit she claimed she did not read. She just wanted a quick abortion and had no inkling that the case would become a cause célèbre.
Four months later, she gave birth to a daughter and surrendered her for adoption. (Her second child had also been given up for adoption, and her first was being raised by her mother.) She had little contact with her lawyers, never went to court or was asked to testify, and was uninvolved in proceedings that took three years to reach the Supreme Court.
The majority rejected the view, pressed by opponents of liberalized abortion, that a fetus becomes a “person” upon conception and is thus entitled to the due process and equal protection guarantees.
“The word ‘person,’ as used in the 14th Amendment, does not include the unborn,” Justice Blackmun wrote, although states may acquire “at some point in time” of a pregnancy an interest in the “potential human life” that the fetus represents, to permit regulation. It is that interest, the court said, that permits states to prohibit abortion after the fetus has developed the capacity to survive.
The state’s “compelling interest” in protecting the fetus increased progressively in the second and third trimesters, the decision said. But it and a companion ruling in a Georgia case on the same day nullified abortion laws in 46 states and effectively legalized the procedure across the United States.
Ms. McCorvey learned of the decision in a newspaper. As jubilant women’s and civil liberties groups hailed it as a milestone and foes denounced it as a travesty, Ms. McCorvey stayed on the sidelines, out of touch with her lawyers, who had preserved her anonymity throughout the case. She remained largely unknown for nearly a decade, living in Dallas with her partner, Connie Gonzalez.
In the 1980s, emerging from her cocoon, she counseled patients at a women’s clinic in Dallas, joined abortion rights rallies and began talking to the news media. She made headlines in 1987 when she told the columnist Carl T. Rowan that she had lied when she told reporters in 1970 that her pregnancy had been the result of a gang rape. She said she had thought that the lie would help her get an abortion. Her lawyers did not mention the allegation, and it played no part in the lawsuit.
But it was a bombshell in the abortion debate as Ms. McCorvey became an emotional touchstone. To anti-abortion groups, she was an agent of murder in the womb and a liar who made up a rape story to get an abortion. To abortion rights proponents, she stood for all pregnant women harmed by restrictive laws.
In 1989, NBC explored the case in a television movie, “Roe v. Wade,” starring Holly Hunter, who won an Emmy in the role of Jane Roe. Critics called the film powerful and moving, despite a strained effort to balance views on abortion.
Ms. McCorvey also joined a Washington abortion rights rally that included 300,000 people, appearing on a speakers’ platform with Gloria Steinem, Jane Fonda, Cybill Shepherd and Glenn Close. “I looked out at all those people, men and women, and so many people brought their children, and they were all there because of me and I started to cry,” Ms. McCorvey told The New York Times.
“Because of her ignorance and her lack of self-respect, Norma McCorvey has been more at the mercy of circumstances than many women,” Susan Cheever wrote in The New York Times Book Review.
Ms. McCorvey’s life turned sharply again in 1995. She was working in a Dallas women’s clinic, A Choice for Women, when the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue provocatively opened an office next door. “She couldn’t stand us, she hated us,” the Rev. Phillip Benham, an Evangelical minister and national director of Operation Rescue, told CNN.
But he and Ms. McCorvey met across protest lines and started talking about themselves, Christianity and abortion. She attended his church and within months was baptized by Mr. Benham as a born-again Christian.
Ms. McCorvey disowned her past and began speaking for her newly adopted cause. She blamed abortion rights advocates for violence at abortion clinics.
“I personally think it’s the pro-abortion people who are doing this to collect on their insurance, so they can go out and build bigger and better killing centers,” she told CNN in 1997.
Her second autobiography, “Won by Love” (1997, with Gary Thomas), and a 1998 documentary, “Roe vs. Roe: Baptism by Fire,” detailed her conversion. In 1998, she underwent another conversion, to Roman Catholicism, after talks with the Rev. Frank Pavone, the anti-abortion crusader and director of Priests for Life.
Father Pavone, in a statement, called Ms. McCorvey a friend for more than 20 years. “She was victimized and exploited by abortion ideologues when she was a young woman but she came to be genuinely sorry that a decision named for her has led to the deaths of more than 58 million children. Norma’s conversion to Christianity, then to Catholicism, was sincere and I was honored to be part of that journey.”
She was born Norma Leah Nelson in Simmesport, La., on Sept. 22, 1947, to Olin and Mildred Nelson. Her father was a television repairman, who left the family, and Norma and a brother, James, were raised by their mother, who was an alcoholic, in Texas.
By her own account, Norma stole money from a gas station at age 10, ran away and was sent to a reform school. Later, she was sent to live with a relative, who raped her for weeks, she said. At 16, she married Elwood McCorvey, known as Woody, a steelworker who she said beat her. She returned pregnant to live with her mother, gave birth to a daughter, Melissa, and was divorced.
With drug and alcohol problems, she left her baby with her mother and took a trip. When she returned, she was arrested by the police for abandoning the child. Later, at her mother’s behest, she signed documents that she said she had not read. They were adoption papers, and her mother took legal custody. She gave birth to another child and gave the baby up for adoption in 1967. She became pregnant a third time in 1969.
After trying unsuccessfully to obtain an illegal abortion, she was sent by a lawyer to Ms. Weddington and Ms. Coffee, who began Roe v. Wade.
In 2005, Ms. McCorvey petitioned the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade, claiming abortions harmed women. The court called the issue moot and denied the petition.
Active in anti-abortion demonstrations, she was arrested in 2009 at a Senate confirmation hearing for Sonia Sotomayor as a Supreme Court justice. She also campaigned against Mr. Obama. “Do not vote for Barack Obama,” Ms. McCorvey said in a 2012 Florida television advertisement. “He murders babies.”
In 2016, “Roe,” a play by Lisa Loomer, featuring Ms. McCorvey and Ms. Weddington as protagonists, opened at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. The playwright told The Times: “Sarah Weddington, when she approaches the subject of Roe v. Wade, it’s about the law. It’s about choice. It’s about doing something to impact the lives of all women. For Norma McCorvey, Roe is about her. It’s utterly personal.”
An earlier version of this obituary misattributed a series of quotations to Justice Harry A. Blackmun, who wrote the majority opinion in the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. Justice Blackmun did not write, “At the heart of the controversy in these cases are those recurring pregnancies that pose no danger whatsoever to the life or health of the mother but are nevertheless unwanted for any one or more of a variety of reasons — convenience, family planning, economics, dislike of children, the embarrassment of illegitimacy, etc. The common claim before us is that for any one of such reasons, or for no reason at all, and without asserting or claiming any threat to life or health, any woman is entitled to an abortion at her request if she is able to find a medical adviser willing to undertake the procedure. The Court for the most part sustains this position: during the period prior to the time the fetus becomes viable, the Constitution of the United States values the convenience, whim or caprice of the putative mother more than life or potential life of the fetus.” Those words were written by Justice Byron White, dissenting in Doe v. Bolton, a companion Supreme Court ruling that, together with Roe v. Wade, effectively legalized abortion across the United States.SOURCE
GEORGE STEELE, ‘THE ANIMAL’ WRESTLER AND MILD-MANNERED TEACHER
George Steele, a gruff, green-tongued fighter who, as the Animal, was one of wrestling’s wildest and most-hated villains for almost two decades, has died, World Wrestling Entertainment, the professional wrestling organization, said on Friday. He was 79.
The organization announced his death without specifying the cause, time or location. Eric Simms, a wrestling agent, said in a social media post Thursday that he had spoken to Mr. Steele’s wife, who said Mr. Steele had been in a hospice.
Mr. Steele, whose real name was William James Myers, was born in Madison Heights, Mich., on April 16, 1937, according to “WWE Legends,” a book by Brian Solomon. He gained fame in the 1970s and ’80s as the Animal, a hairy, grunting brute of few words. But he had little in common with that persona outside the ring.
Mr. Steele, who had dyslexia, earned a master’s degree from Central Michigan University and went on to teach high school in the Detroit area, where he moonlighted in sports-entertainment promotions, according to World Wrestling Entertainment, formerly known as the World Wrestling Federation. Mr. Steele, who is in the organization’s Hall of Fame, started appearing in W.W.F. in 1967, when he launched into a bitter rivalry with the champion Bruno Sammartino.
Mr. Steele was known for his unpredictable behavior and a signature habit of stuffing his mouth with the inner padding of the turnbuckles located at the corners of the ring.
He was a protégé of several wrestlers who subsequently became members of the WWE Hall of Fame, including Harry Fujiwara, also known as Mr. Fuji, who died last summer, and flirted many times with winning the organization’s championship.
In 1985, his career shifted course, according to WWE. Mr. Steele went from being among the most reviled figures in wrestling to one of its most loved, when, after being abandoned during a six-man match by his partners, he wound up under the guidance of the then-popular Capt. Lou Albano.
He retired from wrestling in the late 1980s after learning that he had Crohn’s disease and devoted much of his life after that to motivational speaking, spiritual testimony and promoting awareness of the disease. He later resettled in Cocoa Beach, Fla.
Mr. Steele was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 1995 and the Michigan High School Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 1996, which noted in an online profile that Mr. Steele coached wrestling, football and track for 28 years.
Information on his survivors was not immediately available.
Vince McMahon, the WWE chairman, described Mr. Steele on Twitter as a kind man.
“George Steele was only an animal in the ring,” he said. “He was one of the truly nice men in the world.”
BOBBY FREEMAN, ‘DO YOU WANT TO DANCE’ SINGER
Bobby Freeman, whose “Do You Want to Dance” climbed the pop charts in 1958 and endured long afterward in covers by the Beach Boys, the Ramones, Bette Midler and others, died on Jan. 23 at his home in Daly City, Calif. He was 76.
The cause was a heart attack, his son Robert Freeman Jr. said on Monday. The death had not been widely reported.
Mr. Freeman was still a teenager when he wrote and recorded the song that became his signature. Sung with infectious enthusiasm and featuring a driving Latin rhythm and a joyful guitar solo, “Do You Want to Dance” reached No. 5 on the Billboard singles chart.
An energetic showman and dancer, Mr. Freeman was soon touring with Fats Domino and Jackie Wilson and appearing on television shows like “American Bandstand” and “The Dick Clark Saturday Night Beechnut Show.”
Mr. Freeman’s version of “Do You Want to Dance” (also known as “Do You Wanna Dance,” with and without the question mark) embodied the spirit of early rock ’n’ roll, but the secret to the song’s longevity was that artists interpreted it in myriad ways.
The Beach Boys reached No. 12 on the Billboard chart in 1965 with a typically up-tempo close-harmony interpretation. John Lennon recorded a dreamy reggae version. The Ramones ramped up Mr. Freeman’s energy to punk-rock levels. Both the Mamas and the Papas and Ms. Midler slowed the song down; Ms. Midler’s version, a sensual ballad, reached No. 17 on the Billboard chart in 1973. She told CBS News in 2006 that “Do You Want to Dance” was her favorite song.
The song was also featured on the soundtrack of George Lucas’s rock ’n’ roll coming-of-age film “American Graffiti” (1973)
Mr. Freeman was not a one-hit wonder. “C’mon and Swim” (1964) — a young Sly Stone was its producer and a co-writer — reached No. 5 on the Billboard chart. “Betty Lou Got a New Pair of Shoes” (1958) also charted.
Robert Thomas Freeman was born in Northern California on June 13, 1940, and raised in San Francisco. He attended Mission High School there before joining the Romancers, a doo-wop group.
In addition to his son Robert, his survivors include another son, Jerrald; his partner of 17 years, Michele Ellen; two daughters, April Freeman and Nichole Hackett; and several grandchildren.
Mr. Freeman released a handful of songs after 1964, but none became hits. He spent years performing at clubs in San Francisco, Lake Tahoe, Reno, Las Vegas and other cities, and that was fine with him.
“I’m just as content as I could be with what I’m doing,” he told The San Francisco Chronicle in 1990. “I have no complaints whatsoever.”