The child of “Jane Roe,” whose conception brought about the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade on a woman’s legal right to an abortion, came forward for the first time Thursday after decades of secrecy where she was known only as the “Roe baby.”
Shelley Lynn Thornton was publicly identified in an excerpt published in the Atlantic of journalist Joshua Prager’s upcoming book “The Family Roe: An American Story,” which explores those connected to the landmark 1973 case. In the excerpt, Thornton, 51, of Tucson, opened up about her life and the complex family history connected to the “Roe baby” over the last half-century.
“I want everyone to understand that this is something I’ve chosen to do,” she told Prager about why she’s speaking out. “Secrets and lies are, like, the two worst things in the whole world. I’m keeping a secret, but I hate it.”
She also pointed to the effect the Supreme Court ruling has had on her life. Thornton, the youngest of Norma McCorvey’s three children, was born in 1970, the same year her biological mother filed the Roe v. Wade lawsuit over an abortion she sought but never received.
“My association with Roe started and ended because I was conceived,” she said.
Thornton did not immediately return an interview request Thursday. McCorvey, who revealed herself to be Jane Roe shortly after the court case, died in 2017 at the age of 69.
Thornton’s public identity being revealed now comes at time when antiabortion activists and Republican leaders are celebrating Texas’s new abortion law, which bans the procedure as early as six weeks into pregnancy with no exceptions for rape or incest. After the Supreme Court decided last week to let the Texas law stand while the legal battle over the statute continues, abortion providers in Southern states with Republican-led legislatures are concerned their states will copy the Texas law and further chip away at Roe v. Wade.
In response, President Biden’s Justice Department sued the state of Texas on Thursday to try to block the nation’s most restrictive abortion law. Attorney General Merrick Garland said at a news conference that the Texas ban “is clearly unconstitutional under long-standing Supreme Court precedent.”
The story of Roe v. Wade began in March 1970, when McCorvey, then a 22-year-old pregnant waitress, filed a lawsuit under the name Jane Roe against Dallas County District Attorney Henry Wade, challenging the state laws that banned abortion. Although McCorvey won her lawsuit after a three-judge panel ruled in June 1970 that the Texas ban was unconstitutional, she never got her abortion.
On June 2, 1970, McCorvey gave birth to a girl at Dallas Osteopathic Hospital about two weeks before she won the lawsuit. McCorvey placed the child, her third daughter, up for adoption. The baby would be adopted by a Dallas woman named Ruth Schmidt and her eventual husband, Billy Thornton. Schmidt eventually named the child Shelley Lynn Thornton. When the Roe v. Wade decision eventually came down, antiabortion activists pointed to Thornton’s existence as an anonymous 2½-year-old as a something of a symbol for their movement — one that her adoptive parents were unaware of at the time.
In fact, McCorvey was unaware of the court’s decision years after she had given up Thornton for adoption, Melissa Mills, McCorvey’s oldest daughter, told CBS News.
“Mom didn’t even know that the abortion law had passed,” Mills said.
Schmidt told Thornton when she was young that she had been adopted, and Thornton joked to Prager that she envisioned her birthparents to be Elvis Presley and actress Ann-Margret. But she often wondered about her biological parents.
In 1989, McCorvey began to look for Thornton, who was then about 19. McCorvey appeared on NBC’s “Today” show in hope of getting her message out to the public: Can you help me find my third daughter? The public plea got the attention of the National Enquirer, which eventually located Thornton as living in Seattle. When an Enquirer reporter met with Thornton and Schmidt, the adoptive mother stressed to the journalist that the family did not believe in abortion before letting her daughter know the truth.
“Unfortunately,” Schmidt told Thornton, “your birth mother is Jane Roe.”
Though the National Enquirer kept her name out of the 1989 article, Thornton was left “shaking all over and crying” upon learning her biological family history, Prager reported. While Thornton eventually met her half-sisters, she avoided her birth mother, largely communicating with her through contentious phone calls. Thornton recalled how she struggled with depression and anxiety in the years that followed.
“When someone’s pregnant with a baby and they don’t want that baby, that person develops knowing they’re not wanted,” Thornton said in “The Family Roe.”
McCorvey reportedly understood her youngest daughter’s anger and hesitation. In an unpublished interview that was obtained by Prager, McCorvey said, “How could you possibly talk to someone who wanted to abort you?”
Abortion remained part of Thornton’s life long after Roe v. Wade. When she was pregnant at age 20, Thornton said to the Enquirer “that she couldn’t see herself having an abortion,” but described antiabortion activists as “a bunch of religious fanatics going around and doing protests.” But she did not consider herself to be an abortion rights advocate either, she told Prager, because of her birth mother.
“Norma was pro-choice, and it seemed to Shelley that to have an abortion would render her no different than Norma,” Prager wrote.
Despite her anger toward McCorvey, Thornton was set to meet her biological mother in person in 1994. A heated phone call between the two, in which McCorvey allegedly said Thornton should have thanked her for not going through with the abortion, upended those plans.
“I was like, ‘What?! I’m supposed to thank you for getting knocked up … and then giving me away?’” she said in the book. “I told her I would never, ever thank her for not aborting me.”
McCorvey’s public life was further complicated when she became an antiabortion activist following what was called a spiritual conversion. But in the 2020 documentary “AKA Jane Roe,” McCorvey admitted in an interview before her death that she was paid thousands of dollars to pose as an antiabortion activist despite not holding those views.
Thornton did not meet McCorvey before she died of heart failure more than four years ago. Thornton, now a mother of three of her own, recalled to Prager how she long hoped McCorvey would “feel something for another human being, especially for one she brought into this world.”
“I want her to experience this joy — the good that it brings,” she told the journalist. “I have wished that for her forever and have never told anyone.”