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Fact Check-Fact check – 1973 Roe v. Wade decision did not center on whether plaintiff had been raped

After the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the landmark Roe v. Wade court ruling in June 2022, a claim gained traction online that the 1973 decision was only made because the plaintiff had falsely claimed she had been raped. While it is true that Norma McCorvey, the plaintiff dubbed Jane Roe, had publicly stated and later retracted the claim that she was raped, the claim was not mentioned and did not form part of the Supreme Court ruling. McCorvey also first made the claim publicly in an interview months after the Supreme Court decision was made, an author of a book on the case told Reuters.

The clip circulating online is of an interview years after the 1973 ruling, where McCorvey, whose pseudonym in court proceedings was Jane Roe, told the interviewer, columnist Carl T. Rowan, that the pregnancy she had wished to terminate was not due to rape as she had previously claimed.

Text printed onto the video reads: “Did you know that Roe v. Wade was passed only because Roe lied about being raped? She admitted it live on TV” (here).

On Sept. 9, 1987, numerous media outlets including The New York Times and The Washington Post reported on the interview and that McCorvey said that her claim of rape was untrue (here), (here).

One user who shared the clip via Facebook said: “Did You Know ROE V. WADE Was Passed only Because ROE lied About Being Raped? She Admitted it on Live TV. Everything you think you know is a lie” (here).

Other examples of the claim made online can be found (here), (here), and (here).

“It is true that Jane Doe once claimed to be raped, and then recanted the story. It is not true that this claim was at all relevant to Roe v. Wade,” Caroline Mala Corbin, Professor of Law at the University of Miami School of Law told Reuters.

“The district court in 1970 held that Texas’ abortion laws, which at the time only had an exception for pregnancies that endangered the life of the patient were unconstitutional because they deprived women and their partners of their constitutional right to choose whether to have children,” Anthony Michael Kreis, Assistant Professor of Law at Georgia State University told Reuters.

Henry Wade, District Attorney of Dallas County, Texas was the defendant in the 1970 district court case and the subsequent 1970 Supreme Court case (here).

“The court did not address the particular circumstances around Norma McCorvey’s pregnancy but focused [on] the broader liberty interests implicated by Texas law at the time,” Kreis said.

“There is no mention of rape in the lower court decision, except to the extent that it is quoting the text of the Texas law,” Martha Davis, Professor of Law, scholar in constitutional law and human rights advocacy at Northeastern University told Reuters.

The Roe decision was then brought to the Supreme Court, where the court similarly focused on the broader liberty interests implicated by Texas law, Kreis said.

“Roe’s case was described by the Court as essentially about the fact she could not obtain an abortion under Texas law because her health wasn’t threatened by the pregnancy, and she was unable to travel out-of-state for reproductive health care,” he said.

“The 1973 Roe opinion focused on the medical decision-making process between a patient and a doctor and whether the constitutional right to privacy should attach to the doctor-patient relationship in the abortion context,” Kreis added.

“The Roe v. Wade decision never mentioned rape and in any event the details of how she became pregnant was irrelevant to the question before the Court of whether she had a constitutional right to end that pregnancy,” Corbin told Reuters.

The syllabus of the 1973 Supreme Court case is viewable (here), (here).

The description of Roe's circumstances similarly does not mention rape: "Roe alleged that she was unmarried and pregnant; that she wished to terminate her pregnancy by an abortion ‘performed by a competent, licensed physician, under safe, clinical conditions'; that she was unable to get a ‘legal’ abortion in Texas because her life did not appear to be threatened by the continuation of her pregnancy; and that she could not afford to travel to another jurisdiction in order to secure a legal abortion under safe conditions” (here).

Meanwhile, the first time McCorvey publicly claimed that her pregnancy was as a result of rape was after the 1973 Supreme Court ruling in an article written by Joseph N. Bell and published in June 1973 in ‘Good Housekeeping,’ Josh Prager, author of ‘The Family Roe: An American Story’ told Reuters (here).

In an interview with United Press International (UPI) in 1987, after the Carl T. Rowan interview aired, Sarah Weddington, a lawyer who represented McCorvey, said that she and her co-counsel Linda Coffee made sure to exclude any mention of the rape from the suit.

“The issue of how Jane Roe became pregnant is irrelevant to the case. There was nothing in any of the papers filed with the court or in any of the oral arguments made that related to the cause of the pregnancy,” Weddington said, with the 1987 report viewable (here).

“All of these facts are true. No fact was ever presented to the court unless I was certain we could prove it,” Weddington said at the time.

VERDICT

Partly false. Although it is true that the plaintiff in the Roe v. Wade case, Norma McCorvey, claimed and subsequently retracted her public claim of rape, how McCorvey came to be pregnant had no bearing on the 1973 Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade, experts told Reuters.

This article was produced by the Reuters Fact Check team. Read more about our fact-checking work here .

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