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Woman whose conception sparked Roe v. Wade comes forward: 'I'm keeping a secret but I hate it'

"My association with Roe," Shelley Lynn Thornton said, "started and ended because I was conceived."

Woman whose conception sparked Roe v. Wade comes forward: 'I'm keeping a secret but I hate it'
Cover Image Source: Pro-life activists try to block the sign of a pro-choice activist during the 2018 March for Life January 19, 2018, in Washington, DC. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

The child at the center of the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling shared her identity for the first time Thursday. Through a thought-provoking excerpt from an upcoming book about her, her birth mother, and her half-sisters, Shelley Lynn Thornton, now 51, revealed how the historic decision impacted their lives and gave a glimpse into her complex viewpoints on family and the right to choose. "Nearly half a century ago, Roe v. Wade secured a woman's legal right to obtain an abortion... And yet for all its prominence, the person most profoundly connected to it has remained unknown: the child whose conception occasioned the lawsuit," Joshua Prager, author of The Family Roe writes in the excerpt published in The Atlantic.


"Roe's pseudonymous plaintiff, Jane Roe, was a Dallas waitress named Norma McCorvey. Wishing to terminate her pregnancy, she filed suit in March 1970 against Dallas County District Attorney Henry Wade, challenging the Texas laws that prohibited abortion. Norma won her case. But she never had the abortion. On January 22, 1973, when the Supreme Court finally handed down its decision, she had long since given birth—and relinquished her child for adoption," he continues. "The Court's decision alluded only obliquely to the existence of Norma's baby: In his majority opinion, Justice Harry Blackmun noted that a 'pregnancy will come to term before the usual appellate process is complete.' The pro-life community saw the unknown child as the living incarnation of its argument against abortion. It came to refer to the child as 'the Roe baby.'"


"The Roe Baby" aka Shelley was adopted by a woman named Ruth Schmidt and her soon-to-be husband Billy Thornton and spent the first 19 years of her life without knowing who'd birthed her. She only came to know of her connection to the Roe v. Wade case when McCorvey and The National Enquirer got a woman named Toby Hanft to track her down in 1989. While McCorvey seems to have envisioned a publicized reunion with her daughter, the then-19-year-old didn't want it to happen in the pages of a national tabloid.


Speaking to Prager — whom she began communicating with in 2012 — Shelley explained that she chose to come forward now because she was tired of carrying around the secret. "I want everyone to understand that this is something I've chosen to do... Secrets and lies are, like, the two worst things in the whole world," she said. "I'm keeping a secret, but I hate it." Although the anti-abortion movement often used her existence to bolster its cause, Shelley wanted no part of this, writes Prager. "My association with Roe," Shelley told him, "started and ended because I was conceived."


One particular incident that bothered her, she revealed, was a 1989 article in the National Enquirer that described her as being "pro-life." The National Right to Life Committee seized onto the snippet, with a spokesman saying: "This nineteen-year-old woman's life was saved by that Texas law." Although she was cautious about choosing a side in the pro-life or pro-choice debate as a teen, she gave the matter some more thought when she found herself with an unplanned pregnancy in 1991.


"Shelley had long considered abortion wrong, but her connection to Roe had led her to reexamine the issue," Prager writes. "It now seemed to her that abortion law ought to be free of the influences of religion and politics. Religious certitude left her uncomfortable. And, she reflected, 'I guess I don't understand why it's a government concern.' It had upset her that the Enquirer had described her as pro-life, a term that connoted, in her mind, 'a bunch of religious fanatics going around and doing protests.' But neither did she embrace the term pro-choice: Norma was pro-choice, and it seemed to Shelley that to have an abortion would render her no different than Norma. Shelley determined that she would have the baby. Abortion, she said, was 'not part of who I was.'"


Shelley married her husband Doug in March 1991 and then welcomed a baby boy, followed by two daughters in 1999 and 2000. "I knew what I didn't want to do," she said of raising her son. "I didn't want to ever make him feel that he was a burden or unloved." She avoided her birth mother as best she could, only having contentious phone calls over the years. "When someone's pregnant with a baby and they don't want that baby, that person develops knowing they're not wanted," she said.

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