Abortion Plaintiffs Now on Opposite Sides : Similar Pasts, Different Viewpoints for Roe, Doe

Times Staff Writer

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.”

Pregnant Again

Three years later, while working for the carnival freak show, she became pregnant once more. This time, however, she wanted an abortion because, she said, she could not afford to keep the baby.

There was one catch. At that time, Texas law permitted abortions only to save the life of the woman, so she resigned herself to carrying the baby to term and then giving it up. But when she went to an attorney to discuss arrangements for an adoption, he told her that he knew of two other Dallas lawyers--Sarah Weddington and Linda Coffee--who were seeking a plaintiff to contest Texas’ abortion statute.

McCorvey agreed to meet with Weddington and Coffee at a pizza parlor and discuss the matter. McCorvey, then 22 and eight weeks pregnant, was crestfallen when Weddington said that she could not guarantee that the case would be decided in time to help her.

But when Weddington pointed out that McCorvey might be able to help women coming after her and asked if she would be willing to see the case through to the Supreme Court, McCorvey responded: “Let’s go for it!”

Third Child Born

McCorvey’s third baby, which she had signed over for adoption, was born in June, 1970. She held the baby only momentarily. A nurse mistakenly brought it into her hospital room but rushed back in and snatched it back when she realized her error, leaving McCorvey in tears.

McCorvey said she did not even have time to see whether the child was a girl or a boy.

Three years later, the Supreme Court ruling in her favor was handed down.

McCorvey, then self-employed as a house painter, learned of the decision on her way home from work.

“I had stopped at the store to pick up a paper and some bread and some other stuff,” she recalled. “Down in the lower right-hand corner of the paper it said: ‘U.S. Supreme Court Hands Down 7-2 Decision Legalizing Abortion in Texas.’ ”

For the next seven years, McCorvey kept a low profile, reluctant to tell even her closest friends that she was the Jane Roe of the Roe vs. Wade decision. But then one day, she said, she read a newspaper story that claimed not only was Jane Roe a fictitious name but a non-existent person.

McCorvey, infuriated, decided to go public with her story.

“That was the beginning of my activist career,” she said. “It hasn’t been easy. I’m really a very shy person.”

She also has been the target of, among other things, eggs thrown at her house and car and baby clothes strewn on her front lawn. Two months ago, just before she planned to attend a pro-choice rally in Washington, D.C., sponsored by the National Organization for Women, three shotgun blasts were fired at her house and car.

‘Blood on the Streets’

She fears that the Supreme Court may reverse Roe vs. Wade when it rules in the Webster case.

“I hope they don’t,” she said. “There will just be blood on the streets from women trying to get illegal abortions if they do. Women will get abortions, whether they’re legal or illegal.”

In Atlanta, the story of Sandra Cano begins much like that of Norma McCorvey, but then takes its own peculiar twists.

Cano, the eldest of six children born to an Atlanta sanitation worker and his wife, said she was 17 and a ninth-grade dropout when her parents forced her into a “shotgun” wedding with her first date, Joel Lee Bensing, in 1965.

The teen-age newlyweds moved into her parents’ three-room house on Atlanta’s far South Side, and the next year in May, Cano gave birth to her first child, a boy who was named Joel Lee Jr.

Cano and her husband never had much of a marriage, she recalled in interviews here. “We were never together over a week or two at any one time,” she said. “He was only around long enough to make me pregnant.”

She said that she also was unaware at this time of his proclivity for sexually molesting young children. Her parents knew, she said, “but they didn’t tell me.”

Life Chaotic

In November of the following year, Cano gave birth to her second child, a girl she named April.

Life in her mother’s home was chaotic at best, she said. Once, Cano recalled, when she was pregnant with her third child, her mother took her and her two children to a downtown Atlanta homeless shelter to get them out from underfoot.

“I had no money with me or anything,” Cano said. “They gave you a little bed to sleep on, but once you’re in, you’re up at 6 in the morning and then they feed you breakfast and then you’re not allowed back in till 6 at night.”

This ordeal lasted about a week, with Cano and her children spending the daylight hours on the streets, tired, dirty and often hungry.

When her third child, Lisa, was born in 1969, Cano had moved from Atlanta and was living with her husband in Dallas. But she gave the baby up for adoption two months later, feeling that she just could not care for her and the two other children properly.

Sometime during the years 1968 and 1969, she said, when she was living in Atlanta, her mother swore out a warrant and had her committed to the state mental institution in Milledgeville. But, she said, she managed to escape after two or three days and was never forced to return.

Also during the same period, she said, juvenile authorities took Joel Lee Jr. and April away from her and placed them in foster care.

Wanted a Divorce

In early 1970, pregnant again by her husband with their fourth child, she said she decided to get a divorce and went to the Atlanta Legal Aid Society for help.

From here on, the accounts of her life become contradictory.

According to Cano’s own recollection, when she asked for legal aid, she was told that she could get assistance not only in getting a divorce but in getting back the two children that had been placed in foster care.

“But there was one little thing they said they would like me to help them do,” she said. That was, she said, to join a class-action suit challenging Georgia’s restrictive abortion laws.

“Now they didn’t tell me in straight words: ‘You do this for me (and) I’ll do this for you,’ ” she said. But, she added, she felt as if she were obligated to follow their suggestions, even though she was not fully aware of what she was getting into by becoming a plaintiff in the lawsuit.

On April 16, 1970, Doe vs. Bolton was filed in federal District Court in Atlanta. The next month, on the 15th, the case was heard before a three-judge panel. Sixteen days later, the judges handed down a ruling striking down key parts of Georgia’s abortion law. Both sides appealed, and the appeal went straight to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, said Cano, the lawyers who handled Doe vs. Bolton for the plaintiffs had arranged for her to get an abortion in early May at Georgia Baptist Hospital. But when she discovered what they had done, she fled to Oklahoma, seeking refuge with her husband’s grandmother.

“I never wanted an abortion,” she said. “I didn’t go to them for an abortion.”

Records Tell Another Story

She added that she only came back to Atlanta for the hearing in the Doe case June 15 because she had been assured that she would not be coerced into an abortion.

But according to various court documents, records, published reports and interviews with attorneys involved in Doe vs. Bolton, the story is somewhat different.

They reveal, for example, that Cano did, indeed, seek help from the Atlanta Legal Aid Society in getting a divorce but that she reunited with her husband sometime in early 1970--and that was that.

Then, in April, she returned to the legal aid organization after having her application rejected for an abortion at Grady Memorial Hospital, a downtown public hospital.

Margie Pitts Hames, an Atlanta lawyer and the lead attorney in Doe vs. Bolton, said Cano talked with various attorneys at the legal aid society about getting assistance in having an abortion at another hospital, if she could.

Hames, who was not part of the legal aid society staff but headed a team of lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union helping to put together the Doe suit, said that she was then called in to meet with Cano at the legal aid office.

Talked With Lawyer

“We talked about her being a plaintiff and what that meant, and that she might have to testify and say why she wanted an abortion,” Hames said. “She wanted to know if her name would have to be used. We said she could use Mary Doe.”

Hames said that Cano agreed, and the suit--Doe vs. Bolton--was filed.

Then her application at Georgia Baptist was finally approved on March 5, but Cano refused to go through with the procedure.

Still, Hames said that Cano remained a willing plaintiff and signed the affidavit in March, 1971, for the appeal.

“She also appeared in my office in 1973, in which she gave an interview to a network television reporter,” she said. “Her face did not show to preserve her anonymity. The gist of the interview she gave was that she didn’t benefit from the decision but she was glad other women had the right to choose.”

Cano said that she does not remember what she told the reporter, but that when she learned of the Supreme Court ruling in her case, she was sickened.

“I felt like something came over me, like a gloom, like a weight or burden or something,” she said. “I felt like this ain’t right. It was like something in me, like something was weighted in me.”

Gave Up Her Child

Her fourth child, Melissa, was born in November and given up for adoption. But, as a result of recent publicity, the two found each other, and now Melissa and Melissa’s two children live with Cano.

In March of 1971, after her husband pleaded guilty to charges in the kidnaping of an 8-year-old girl and was sentenced to three concurrent 20-year terms in prison, she divorced him.

She has been married three times since. Her present husband, Nino Cano, is a Mexican immigrant, with whom she lives in a one-bedroom apartment on Atlanta’s Southeast Side.

In recent months, she has been a highly visible and vocal part of the demonstration staged in Atlanta by the militant anti-abortion group known as Operation Rescue.

Cano also has been a target of crime. Last February, both her car and her husband’s pickup were shot at with pistols. The truck later was stolen. Another truck that he bought to replace it also was stolen just this month.

THE ROE AND DOE RULINGS On Jan. 22, 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 7 to 2 in the landmark abortion cases of Roe vs. Wade and Doe vs. Bolton. Justice Harry A. Blackmun wrote the majority opinions; Justices William H. Rehnquist and Byron R. White dissented. Here is what the majority decided:

* The right to privacy, grounded in the 14th Amendment’s due process guarantee of personal liberty, encompasses and protects a woman’s decision on whether to bear a child. This right is impermissibly abridged by state laws that make abortion a crime.

* During the first trimester of pregnancy, the decision to have an abortion should be left entirely to a woman and her physician. The state can forbid abortions by non-physicians.

* During the second trimester, the state may regulate the abortion procedure in ways reasonably related to maternal health.

* And during the third trimester, the state may, if it wishes, forbid all abortions except those necessary to save the mother’s life.

SOURCE: Guide to U.S. Supreme Court