The little-known details of the origins of legalized abortion
Once upon a time, the world was safer for children. We played outside without adults, invented games, solved our own disputes and everyone got home in time for supper. Day or night, we knew that we could (and did) knock on literally any door in the neighborhood, and the adults there would help us without question. The whole culture looked out for children.
These days, if adults are looking out for children, it may very well be to exploit them, not protect them. If kids are even allowed to play outside, there are not multiple safe havens to run to; most households have no one at home. It’s a different universe for children now; they have no idea what true safety actually is. Roe changed everything in 1973. The world was already changing, and Roe sent it nuclear.
As we look with hope to the Supreme Court’s ruling on Dobbs v. Mississippi, it’s important to listen to those who once knew a world in which children were indisputably valued under the law. Only 20% of the American public was born before January 23, 1973, and knows what a pre-Roe world looked like. We are like World War II veterans; soon our story will be buried with us. We have to tell it, and it begins in Dallas, where I grew up.
Roe v. Wade is a Texas tale. The case originated in Dallas with a Texas cast of characters: Henry Wade, the swashbuckling Dallas District Attorney; Sarah Weddington and Linda Coffee, two University of Texas law graduates; Norma McCorvey (Roe), a pregnant Dallas waitress, who wandered into the story by chance.
I was 14 years old in 1973, a freshman in a nominally Catholic high school in Dallas, and mostly unaware of national political events when Roe was handed down. My older sister remembers very well reading the Tuesday headline, “ABORTION LEGAL” on the front page of the Dallas Morning News on that fateful January day. She understood what it meant deeply enough that she remembers crying over it.
Many years later, I found out that one of my best friends was among the first in line when clinics opened the moment the decision was handed down. The clinics had been set up well in advance, ready to service women the minute the decision was announced. They were dicey affairs in sketchy parts of town, and my friend remembers it only as “hideous.” She’s spent decades trying to erase the memory, but she does recall that all the girls lay together recovering in a big space where folding cots had been set up in close lines without privacy curtains.
It seemed that January 23 was a “tipping point,” everything already in place to make the decision inevitable. It’s like the tracks were greased.
Henry Wade, the losing name in the equation, was the Democrat District Attorney for Dallas County. Wade was a big Texas legend who cast a long shadow. He had an undefeated record for criminal prosecutions, including Jack Ruby’s conviction for killing Lee Harvey Oswald. He put on a Southern-fried Columbo act, catching legal opponents in his web like a cigar-chomping spider. He was formidable.
But he seemed to have cared little about Roe. He’d earned his reputation as a prosecutor of murderers, rapists, assassins, not as a defendant of a Texas law he didn’t really support. He entrusted the defense to two associates, not interested enough to participate. In later years, he never even read the decision.
When opposing attorney Sarah Weddington was informed that the case would be argued by someone other than Wade, she is said to have thanked her lucky stars. She was only 26 years old, and had never performed in a courtroom before. Had Wade given a damn about abortion, he probably would have buried Weddington in court, and children might still be safe in the United States. Or maybe not. In hindsight, the victory appears planned and coordinated.
In the original Dallas case, Linda Coffee and Sarah Weddington allied to force the issue of “reproductive rights” in the courts. Coffee had already sketched out a test case when she asked Weddington to join her. The legal team complete, they went looking for a plaintiff to challenge the abortion prohibition in Dallas County.
In 1969, Norma McCorvey, an addicted nomad who’d worked in carnivals and restaurants, found herself pregnant with a third child and no support. Looking for an illegal abortion, she was introduced to Coffee by an associate who knew Coffee needed a plaintiff. Norma was already 5 months along, and desperate for help. She seemed unaware that the legal proceedings would not, in fact, help her at all, given that she had only four months to delivery. That may have been the beginning of what Norma would later characterize as “being used” by people for their own purposes.
Had Coffee and Weddington actually answered Norma’s request, they would have arranged for her to get an abortion in New York or California, but they needed her to be pregnant when the suit was filed, in order to have legal standing to sue. As the legal machine was just getting warmed up, Norma delivered her daughter, who was adopted by a north Texas family, all in God’s good plan.
Meanwhile, Norma became the name of the abortion culture after the Supreme Court decision in 1973, and was passed around the country on the speech circuit. Really, she had gotten sucked up by circumstances: she wanted to lose a child at the same time that Linda Coffee desperately needed a pregnant plaintiff. Had Coffee not been so anxious to bring the case, she might have waited for a more well-spoken, more well-turned out subject than Norma. Even after years on the public stage, Norma never developed into a polished speaker, and was never quite sure what people expected of her.
Despite the fierce face she learned to put on, Norma was a fragile personality inside a hard shell. In the mid-90s, her prickly heart was cracked open by the affection of a 4-year old child who greeted her in the mornings as she went into work at a Dallas abortion mill. The child belonged to a pro-life worker, praying and counseling on the sidewalk of the facility.
Norma began attending church with that family, and in 1995, was famously baptized in a swimming pool by Rev. Flip Benham of Operation Rescue.
Through friendships with many Catholics, including Fr. Frank Pavone, over the ensuing years, Norma began attending Mass at the Dominican Priory at the University of Dallas. She came under the direction of a holy priest, Fr. Edward Robinson, and was received quietly into the Catholic Church in 1998.
Norma regretted her cooperation with Coffee and Weddington terribly, calling it the biggest mistake of her life. In reparation, she founded the organization “Roe No More,” hoping she would live to see the day the carnage would end. She died in 2017.
And here we are, waiting expectantly for the Supreme Court to scrub her name from the pro-abortion movement. But can the world ever go back to the times when children were safe? Unfortunately, legal and widespread abortion has given rise to evil we couldn’t even have imagined in 1973. The hard-heartedness that grows in the aftermath of abortion has built up an army of irrational ragers against pre-born life, and against those who try to protect it. Over time, the movement has dispensed with niceties, and shown itself to simply be haters of goodness and of God.
It would be poetic for legal abortion to end in Dallas, where it began. And indeed, Dallas has built up a full-bodied pro-life organization with paid staff, hundreds of volunteers, and robust ministries for every phase of pregnancy and early parenthood. It’s been called the most effective diocesan pro-life organization in the world.
But it appears the honor of ending legal abortion will belong to Jackson, Mississippi, where the Jackson Women’s Health Organization of the case Dobbs v Jackson is still in business, pending the Supreme Court decision. A good synopsis of the case is here: https://www.ncregister.com/news/mississippi-pro-life-law-biggest-case-on-abortion-in-30-years.
Every pro-life organization and person in the country will need to step up if Roe is overturned by the Dobbs decision, as appears likely. It will take at least a generation for people to modify their behavior when abortion is less easily available. The children may be protected by law, but the task of reclaiming all the souls who have been coarsened by access to abortion will be epic. All hands will be needed.
Norma’s story should serve as encouragement. As a pro-abortion activist, she was none too pleasant, and I expect I would have recoiled from her anger the same way I recoil from the screeching rage that we see displayed now, across the country and even on our own small city square. But after everything she had done, and everything done to her, she retained enough of her true self to embrace Christ. I don’t think she ever fully healed from the damage she’d sustained, but Jesus and Mary brought her the rest of the way.
That’s a possibility for every person we encounter on the mined battlefields we will walk in this next era. Even if the Supreme Court doesn’t strike down Roe, notice has been served: the pro-abortion folks will never again take it for granted. The change is here, no matter what the Court does. And whether Miss Norma is in Purgatory or Heaven, she can pray for us. She can remind us that every angry woman can be saved.
May God strengthen us all to pave the way for goodness, after Roe is redeemed.
Sheryl Collmer is an independent consultant for several non-profit organizations. She holds a Masters in Theological Studies from the University of Dallas, as well as an MBA, and lives in the diocese of Tyler, Texas.