WASHINGTON — The women in whose names the Supreme Court legalized abortion in 1973 are asking the courts to reconsider those rulings on the grounds that their participation was coerced and exploited and that many women today have abortions under similar coercive circumstances.
At a March 15 press conference, Norma McCorvey and Sandra Cano Saucedo said they are making their appeal in connection with a New Jersey class-action lawsuit by women who have unsuccessfully tried to sue doctors who performed abortions on them without first obtaining informed and voluntary consent.
That case, Santa Marie vs. Whitman, follows attempts by three women who had abortions to sue different doctors and clinics for wrongful death of their babies. They say that because they never gave informed consent, as required by New Jersey law, the doctors should be liable for damages.
McCorvey and Cano are asking the New Jersey federal District Court to accept their “friend-of-the-court” briefs saying that —like the women in the current lawsuit — their roles in Roe v. Wade and Doe vs. Bolton were based on misinformation, coercion and poor understanding of the nature of abortion.
McCorvey, the Jane Roe of Roe v. Wade, and Cano, the Mary Doe of Doe vs. Bolton, both said they had no idea what an abortion involved and that they were never adequately informed of what their lawyers were doing when they became the plaintiffs in the cases.
Roe and Doe eventually became the Supreme Court's twin rulings that said there is a constitutional right to abortion. Roe threw out most state restrictions on abortion; Doe permitted abortions through all nine months of pregnancy.
Cano said she never sought an abortion when she went to a Georgia legal aid attorney for help with a divorce in 1970. Pregnant with her fourth child and receiving no support from her husband, Cano faced family pressure to have an abortion, but she refused. She eventually left the state and had the child, who she gave up for adoption, she said.
“I have lived a hard life,” Cano said. “I have been poor. I even had my children taken from me by the state. However, at no time have I ever wanted to abort my babies.”
Cano said in an affidavit to the federal court that she didn't understand until years later that her situation was being used to claim a constitutional right to abortion, even though she never sought one.
“The law has developed, in part, based upon what my lawyer claimed I thought, what I wanted and that abortion was in my interest,” the affidavit said.
“The case brought by my lawyer in the name of Mary Doe was a fraud upon the Supreme Court of the United States and the people of America,” she said at the press conference.
McCorvey said she also was misled as her case went to the Supreme Court.
“In the two to three years during the case, no one, including my lawyers, told me that an abortion is actually terminating the life of an actual human being,” said her affidavit to the federal court. “The courts never took any testimony about this and I heard nothing which shed light on what abortion really was.”
McCorvey spent years working for abortion clinics before striking up a friendship with a Protestant minister who led anti-abortion protests. She was baptized a Christian in 1995 and became a Catholic in 1998 during a private ceremony at a Dallas parish.
Statements were provided at the press conference explaining the claims in the New Jersey case by Donna Santa Marie and “Jane Jones,” who were both 16 when they had abortions, and “Mary Doe.”
Doe and Jones said they were given inaccurate information about their pregnancies and pressured to sign informed consent statements. Santa Marie said she did not want an abortion and said so on forms she signed when her mother insisted on bringing her to have one when she was 16.
At one abortion clinic, the doctor read her statement that she did not want an abortion and told her parents he could not perform the procedure based on her opposition, the statement about Santa Marie said.
After her parents threatened to file criminal charges against her boyfriend, Santa Marie again accompanied her parents to an abortion clinic, according to the statement. At the second clinic, the statement said, Santa Marie never spoke with the doctor or other staff members before being led into the operating room; she was not asked whether she was there of her own accord and the abortion was performed against her wishes.
Santa Marie, who is now 20, married and has a child, was not at the press conference.
The class action suit seeks to invalidate laws that the women claim give the doctors more protection from lawsuits than pregnant women have from being coerced into having abortions they don't want. It also asks for a declaration that the state's abortion laws violate equal protection rights under the 14th Amendment to the Constitution.
In the state court lawsuit against her doctor by “Jane Jones,” a judge has issued an order suspending the case until federal courts can hear the class action suit, said Harold J. Cassidy, the New Jersey attorney representing the women.
Cassidy said that regardless of how that legal effort proceeds, the suit asks for changes in how abortions are handled in the state.
He said the suit asks the court “to compel the abortion clinics and doctors to tell the mothers that the child already exists; that the procedure terminates the life of a human being; and to require the clinics to show the mothers a sonogram on which she can see her child's live image, all to assist the mother to make an informed decision.”