Roe: Telling the stories behind the landmark decision

When walking into a play titled Roe, one might expect a dry analysis of a legal case or a fiery pro-choice rally. Instead, Roe delivered a clever, often comic portrayal of the two women at the center of the story behind the controversial Supreme Court abortion decision — Sarah Weddington, the young lawyer who argued the case, and Norma McCorvey, aka Jane Roe — and their divergent recollections of events. Lisa Loomer based the play on Weddington’s and McCorvey’s books, and the play often breaks the fourth wall to explain points of contention in the two accounts.

The play opens with McCorvey at a 1970s “girls’ bar” in Dallas, where she is seeking advice on where to procure an abortion. This is McCorvey’s third pregnancy. Her first child, Melissa, lived with McCorvey’s mother, and her second child was placed for adoption. We learn throughout the play about McCorvey’s troubled upbringing. Her father left the family when she was young and her mother was an abusive alcoholic.

Meanwhile, Weddington, fresh out of law school, is participating in a women’s group where the (hilarious) lesson of the day is how to find one’s cervix. She is passionate, but she is having trouble finding work at a law firm because she is a woman. She delivers a monologue decrying the back-alley abortions of the day, leading the women around her to suggest that she lead the charge towards legalized abortion.

Unable to obtain an abortion, McCorvey is referred by her adoption attorney to lawyers Linda Coffee and Weddington, who are looking for pregnant women seeking abortions to serve as plaintiffs. As the play makes clear, there is some debate as to how far along McCorvey was in her pregnancy when she and Weddington met for the first time at a pizza parlor. McCorvey claimed that Weddington led her to believe she would be able to obtain an abortion because of her involvement with the court case, which would not be resolved for several years. At the time, McCorvey also asserted that the pregnancy was the result of a rape; she would later recant that claim, explaining that she had lied in an attempt to obtain the abortion under a rape exception.

On December 13, 1971, Weddington argued Roe v. Wade for the first time before seven justices (two had recently retired). In his opening argument, Texas attorney Jay Floyd made the “worst joke in legal history”: “Mr. Chief Justice and may it please the Court. It’s an old joke, but when a man argues against two beautiful ladies like this, they are going to have the last word.”

The case was reargued on October 11, 1972, before a full court. For both arguments, the play used audio from the actual proceedings to represent the justices as they inquired about topics ranging from when life begins to whether privacy is a right to whether an unborn fetus is a person with Fourteenth Amendment protections. The play shows us Weddington’s joy when the decision is released, though her elation is somewhat tempered by the opinion’s exception for “fetal life after viability.”

While Weddington is focused on the case, McCorvey delivers her child despite her attempts at self-abortion. She meets Connie Gonzales, who became her long-time partner. McCorvey went on to become an outspoken advocate for reproductive justice and to work in an abortion clinic.

However, as the play shows us, McCorvey was later introduced to Flip Benham, a minister and leader of Operation Rescue, a pro-life organization. McCorvey connected with Benham and others at Operation Rescue, where she felt accepted as Norma McCorvey, not as “Jane Roe.” Benham was a former alcoholic who had wanted his children aborted but who later became a Christian and pro-life organizer. McCorvey was baptized, stopped identifying as a lesbian, and started work as a pro-life advocate. She claimed that she had been manipulated by Coffee and Weddington and began fighting to see Roe reversed.

The play allowed for the portrayal of legitimate voices on both sides of the abortion debate. The liberal Washington audience’s excited applause at pro-choice lines gave greater weight to that side of the issue, and the line “should a public figure be driven by personal slights?” got the biggest laugh. But the play’s success in humanizing Benham and others at Operation Rescue, and its suggestion that McCorvey may indeed have been manipulated, provided some counterweight.

It is impossible to ignore the timing of the play. Its official opening occurred just days before the inauguration of Donald Trump, who promised throughout the campaign to appoint Supreme Court justices who would overturn Roe v. Wade. The play ended by noting that a pro-choice woman had won the popular vote for president and that although challenges to Roe exist, it still stands today.

Roe runs through February 19, 2017, at the Arena Stage’s Kreeger Theater in Washington, D.C.

Posted in: Featured, Supreme Court history

CLICK HERE FOR FULL VERSION OF THIS STORY