By Ellie Kaufman and Shawn Nottingham
(CNN) — Norma McCorvey, known as “Jane Roe,” the anonymous plaintiff in Roe v. Wade, the US Supreme Court case that established a constitutional right to abortion, has died, a priest close to her family said Saturday. She later became an anti-abortion activist.
McCorvey died in the Houston area with her daughter Melissa and several grandchildren present, said the Rev. Frank Pavone, an anti-abortion activist.
Pavone did not give the cause of death but said McCorvey had been a heavy smoker and had respiratory problems. She had been in and out of assisted living facilities over the past year.
“Norma has been a friend of mine, and of Priests for Life, for more than 20 years,” Pavone said, referring to a Catholic anti-abortion group. He said she later came “to be genuinely sorry” for her role in the famous abortion decision.
She began her association with one of the nation’s most contentious and volatile sociopolitical issues in 1970 when she became the lead plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit challenging strict anti-abortion laws in Texas.
The case was appealed to the Supreme Court, which handed down its controversial ruling in January 1973. The decision legalized the right to an abortion in all 50 states and sparked a political debate that remains charged to this day.
McCorvey, who was on her third pregnancy, never had an abortion and gave birth to a girl, who was given up for adoption.
In the 1980s, she went public with her identity and wrote a book titled “I Am Roe: My Life, Roe v. Wade, and Freedom of Choice.”
In the book, McCorvey, a ninth-grade dropout, describes a tough life, explaining that she suffered physical and emotional abuse as a child, spent some time in reform school in Gainesville, Texas, and was raped as a teenager. A husband whom she married at 16 later beat her. She also tells of her alcohol and drug abuse and experiences with lovers of both sexes.
Her first child, Melissa, was raised by her mother; her second child was raised by the father, and the couple agreed that McCorvey would never contact her.
Converts to Christianity
In 1995, McCorvey was working at a Dallas women’s clinic when the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue moved its offices next door.
She got to know the Rev. Philip Benham, Operation Rescue’s national director, during smoke breaks outside her office, and she accepted an invitation from the daughter of the group’s office manager to attend church. That night, she converted to Christianity.
She was baptized in August 1995 in a swimming pool at a Dallas home. The baptism was filmed for national television.
McCorvey then began working for the anti-abortion movement.
In 1997, when interviewed by CNN on the 25th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, she said: “I’m very sad (about the anniversary). But this year, I’ve got so much to do, I don’t have time to sit down and be sad.”
Pavone said McCorvey had lived much of her life in Dallas but moved to the Houston area to be close to her daughter Melissa, who was with her when she died.
He didn’t know the names of her two other children or where they lived.
“Norma was, you know, she was very much alone most of her life. That aloneness was in part generated by all of this abortion controversy,” Pavone said.
“I know what she would want to say to people. … Simply learn my story,” he said. “I think this is a great opportunity for the American people to reflect on the Roe v. Wade decision. It’s one of those issues you just can’t get out of the headlines after all these years, and she would say listen everybody, just learn my story.”
CNN’s Eugene Scott and Ralph Ellis contributed to this report.
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