The baby at the center of Roe v. Wade – the landmark ruling which established women’s right to have an abortion in the US – has revealed her identity for the first time in The Atlantic.
Shelley Lynn Thornton, a 51-year-old mother-of-three, has come forward to reveal she is the youngest daughter of Norma McCorvey – the woman known as Jane Roe – and grew up with adoptive parents who didn’t believe in abortion.
Thornton, who never met her birth mother in person before her death in 2017, told journalist Joshua Prager she had decided to speak out after more than half a century because she wanted to free herself from the ‘secrets and lies.’
‘Secrets and lies are, like, the two worst things in the whole world. I’m keeping a secret, but I hate it,’ she said, in an adapted excerpt from Prager’s new book ‘The Family Roe: An American Story’, published in The Atlantic.
‘I want everyone to understand that this is something I’ve chosen to do.’
The Atlantic tweeted the first photo identifying Thornton soon after the story was published and repeatedly through the day.
Thornton said her views on abortion are now complex, saying ‘I don’t understand why it’s a government concern’ but revealing that when she fell pregnant at 20 she decided abortion was ‘not part of who I was.’
‘My association with Roe started and ended because I was conceived,’ she told Prager, whose book is published September 14.
Shelley Lynn Thornton (pictured), a 51-year-old mother-of-three, has come forward to reveal she is the baby at the center of Roe v. Wade
Norma McCorvey aka ‘Jane Roe’ (left) and her attorney Gloria Allred at the Supreme Court in 1989
The Atlantic revealed that Shelley Lynn Thornton, 51, is the youngest daughter of Norma McCorvey in an adapted excerpt from journalist Joshua Prager’s new book ‘The Family Roe: An American Story’ (above), our September 14
McCorvey, then 22 and living in Dallas, Texas, filed a lawsuit in 1970 under the name ‘Jane Roe,’ asking to be able to have an abortion.
She was unmarried and had previously given birth to two other daughters, who she had given up for adoption.
At the time, abortion was illegal except for where the mother’s life was at risk. But McCorvey never got the abortion.
The suit, which came to define reproductive rights across America, rumbled on until 1973.
By this time, McCorvey had given birth to the baby, given her up for adoption and the toddler was two-and-a-half and living with new parents.
The revelation of the identity of the baby at the center of the landmark case comes as Roe v. Wade and the debate around abortion laws have taken center stage in the US once again.
Last week, Texas implemented a new law that effectively undercut the 1973 ruling and saw the introduction of the most extreme abortion law across the country.
The law, dubbed the ‘Texas Heartbeat Act’, bans abortions from when a fetal heartbeat can be detected, which is typically after six weeks of pregnancy – before many women even know they are pregnant.
The ban does not make exceptions for women who are victims of rape or incest, with the only exception being to save the life of the mother.
Rather than enforcement by state officials, the new law gives private citizens the right to sue women who get abortions or anyone who helps them get abortions for $10,000.
The law took effect last Wednesday when the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in favor of upholding it and denied a request from abortion providers to block it.
Thornton had always known she was adopted and had longed to make contact with her birth mother, she told Prager in the excerpt of ‘The Family Roe: An American Story’, obtained by The Atlantic.
But she said she has suffered from depression and anxiety for years – something she attributes at least in part to knowing she was ‘not wanted’ by her birth mom.
‘When someone’s pregnant with a baby and they don’t want that baby, that person develops knowing they’re not wanted,’ said Thornton, in the book excerpt obtained by The Atlantic.
McCorvey in 1998. Shelley Lynn Thornton, 51, has come forward to reveal that she is the youngest daughter of McCorvey – the woman known as Jane Roe
Thornton was the only child of her adopted parents Ruth Schmidt and Billy Thornton, who – after being unable to conceive their own child – reached out to attorney Henry McCluskey to help them adopt.
The couple took their baby home at three days old in June 1970, with no knowledge that she was at the center of the high-profile lawsuit, revealed Prager in the book excerpt.
Thornton told Prager that neither she nor her adoptive parents learned she was the infant dubbed the ‘Roe baby’ by the anti-abortion community until almost two decades later, reported The Atlantic.
In 1989, McCorvey publicly spoke out to say she wanted to track down her third child.
The National Enquirer carried out an investigation with the help of a woman named Toby Hanft, who previously gave her own daughter up for adoption and was now working to connect birth mothers with the children they gave up.
Hanft managed to identify and track down Thornton, who was 18 at the time, according to Prager.
When Thornton found out her mom was Jane Roe, she said she knew little about the Supreme Court case other than it ‘made it OK for people to go out and be promiscuous’, according to the book excerpt published in The Atlantic.
‘The only thing I knew about being pro-life or pro-choice or even Roe v. Wade was that this person had made it OK for people to go out and be promiscuous,’ she told Prager.
She said she was left ‘shaking all over and crying’ following the bombshell revelation.
The Enquirer published its article in 1989 revealing the so-called ‘Roe baby’ had been found but, at her request, did not reveal Thornton’s identity and she didn’t meet with McCorvey.
Melissa Mills (pictured), the eldest of McCorvey’s daughters, has also spoken out to CBS after her half-sister’s identity was revealed in The Atlantic
Two years after the Enquirer article was published and as an unmarried 20-year-old, Thornton told Prager she discovered she was pregnant.
She was already planning to marry her partner Doug but she was ‘not at all’ eager to become a mother and Doug suggested they consider an abortion, she said, according to the excerpt in The Atlantic.
Thornton said her ties to the Roe v. Wade case had caused her to rethink her views on abortion.
When the Enquirer had tracked her down, her adoptive mom Ruth told the journalist ‘we don’t believe in abortion,’ she told Prager.
The publication had then described her as pro-life because, The Atlantic reported, she had told the journalist ‘she couldn’t see herself having an abortion.’
Thornton told Prager she was unhappy with this description because she regarded pro-life as ‘a bunch of religious fanatics going around and doing protests.’
However, she also didn’t identify as pro-choice because ‘Norma was pro-choice, and it seemed to Shelley that to have an abortion would render her no different than Norma,’ Prager wrote in the book extract.
Thornton told Prager, in the excerpt obtained by The Atlantic, that she had come to the conclusion that religion and politics should not play a part in abortion law.
‘I guess I don’t understand why it’s a government concern,’ she said.
But she realized that abortion was ‘not part of who I was’ and decided to keep the baby – a son – and ensure he felt wanted.
‘I knew what I didn’t want to do,’ she said in the book excerpt.
Norma McCorvey (left) and her attorney Gloria Allred (right) hold hands as they leave the Supreme Court building in Washington after sitting in while the court listened to arguments in a Missouri abortion case in 1989
‘I didn’t want to ever make him feel that he was a burden or unloved.’
Thornton and Doug now have two more children – daughters born in 1999 and 2000.
Thornton told Prager she had a difficult relationship with her biological mother and never met her in person before she died.
She recalled a heated conversation in 1994 when McCorvey called her to say she and her long-term partner Connie wanted to visit her, according to The Atlantic.
Thornton recalled that she asked her birth mom to be ‘discreet’ with her partner in front of her young son.
‘How am I going to explain to a three-year-old that not only is this person your grandmother, but she is kissing another woman?’ she recalled, per the book.
Thornton said McCorvey shouted at her and told her she should be grateful to her for not aborting her.
‘I was like, “What?! I’m supposed to thank you for getting knocked up… and then giving me away,”‘ she told Prager.
‘I told her I would never, ever thank her for not aborting me.’
When McCorvey was dying in a Texas hospital in 2017, Thornton said she went ‘back and forth’ about finally visiting her.
The revelation about the identity of the baby at the center of the landmark case comes as Roe v. Wade and the debate around abortion laws have taken center stage in the US once again. A group of protesters gather in Times Square, NYC, Saturday to rally against the new Texas law
Texas Governor Greg Abbott (pictured) signed a new abortion law in May which took effect Wednesday
But McCorvey died from heart failure aged 69 before they met.
Thornton has reunited with her two half-sisters Jennifer and Melissa, however.
Melissa Mills, the eldest of McCorvey’s daughters, has also spoken out to CBS after her half-sister’s identity was revealed in The Atlantic.
‘My mom never had an abortion. No, she had Shelley before the abortion law passed,’ she said in a clip of the interview which will air on CBS Mornings Friday.
Mills said, despite the landmark abortion law being born from her birth mom’s lawsuit, McCorvey wasn’t told when the law passed.
‘Yeah, quite a bit before I think and they didn’t even call her. Mom didn’t even know that the abortion law had passed,’ she said.
‘They didn’t even include her on any of that so she really wasn’t involved – they didn’t want her to be.
‘They said she really wasn’t the type of person that they needed even though they used her case.’
When asked ‘what does Norma McCorvey mean to you?’, Mills replied: ‘That’s my mom.’
McCorvey, who revealed her identity as Jane Roe days after the 1973 Supreme Court ruling, became a pro-choice figurehead at abortion rights rallies alongside her attorney Gloria Allred.
Later in life, she became a born-again Christian and she switched to a pro-life stance.
However, in a deathbed confession first released in 2020 documentary ‘AKA Jane Roe’, McCorvey claimed she faked her conversion in exchange for hundreds of thousands of dollars in payments by an anti-abortion group.
Two religious leaders backed her claims, with one admitting ‘the jig is up.’
Roe v. Wade: The landmark 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion in America
In 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court recognized a woman’s constitutional right to an abortion in Roe v. Wade. The landmark ruling legalized abortion nationwide but divided public opinion and has been under attack ever since.
The case was filed in 1971 by Norma McCorvey, a 22-year-old living in Texas who was unmarried and seeking a termination of her unwanted pregnancy.
Because of state legislation preventing abortions unless the mother’s life is at risk, she was unable to undergo the procedure in a safe and legal environment.
So McCorvey sued Henry Wade, the Dallas county district attorney, in 1970. The case went on to the Supreme Court, under the filing Roe vs Wade, to protect McCorvey’s privacy.
Supreme Court Decision
The Supreme Court handed down the watershed 7-2 decision that a woman’s right to make her own medical decisions, including the choice to have an abortion, is protected under the 14th Amendment.
In particular, that the Due Process Clause of the the 14th Amendment provides a fundamental ‘right to privacy’ that protects a woman’s liberty to choose whether or not to have an abortion.
The landmark ruling saw abortions decriminalized in 46 states, but under certain specific conditions which individual states could decide on. For example, states could decide whether abortions were allowed only during the first and second trimester but not the third (typically beyond 28 weeks).
Among pro-choice campaigners, the decision was hailed as a victory which would mean fewer women would become seriously – or even fatally – ill from abortions carried out by unqualified or unlicensed practitioners. Moreover, the freedom of choice was considered a significant step in the equality fight for women in the country. Victims of rape or incest would be able to have the pregnancy terminated and not feel coerced into motherhood.
However, pro-lifers contended it was tantamount to murder and that every life, no matter how it was conceived, is precious. Though the decision has never been overturned, anti-abortionists have prompted hundreds of states laws since then narrowing the scope of the ruling.
One such was the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act signed by President George W. Bush in 2003, which banned a procedure used to perform second-trimester abortions.
McCorvey lived a quiet life until the 1980s when she revealed herself to be Jane Roe
Norma McCorvey (Jane Roe)
Following the ruling, McCorvey lived a quiet life until the 1980s when she revealed herself to be Jane Roe. McCorvey became a leading, outspoken pro-abortion voice in American discourse, even working at a women’s clinic where abortions were performed.
However, she performed an unlikely U-turn in 1995, becoming a born again Christian and began traveling the country speaking out against the procedure.
In 2003, a she filed a motion to overturn her original 1973 ruling with the U.S. district court in Dallas. The motion moved through the courts until it was ultimately denied by the Supreme Court in 2005.
McCorvey died at an assisted living home in Texas in February 2017, aged 69.
‘The Heartbeat bill’
Multiple governors have signed legislation outlawing abortion if a doctor can detect a so-called ‘fetal heartbeat,’ part of a concerted effort to restrict abortion rights in states across the country.
Under the ban doctors will be prosecuted for flouting the rules.
Abortion-rights supporters see the ‘heartbeat bills’ as virtual bans because ‘fetal heartbeats’ can be detected as early as six weeks, when women may not be aware they are pregnant.
Anti-abortion campaigners have intensified their efforts since Donald Trump was elected president and appointed two conservative justices to the US Supreme Court, hopeful they can convince the right-leaning court to re-examine Roe v. Wade.
Georgia, Ohio, Missouri, and Louisiana have enacted ‘heartbeat laws’ recently, and Alabama passed an even more restrictive version in May, amounting to a near total ban on abortion from the moment of conception. Other states have similar legislation pending.
Similar laws has also been passed in Arkansas, Mississippi, North Dakota, Iowa and Kentucky, though they have been blocked by courts from going into effect as legal challenges have been brought against them.