Law

Roe Plaintiff Restates the Case She Helped Win

Sunday, September 21, 2008

The U.S. Supreme Court's stance on abortion hangs in the balance of this year's election and one Roe v. Wade plaintiff is making anti-choice ads. Against that backdrop, Marsha King, another plaintiff, gave an exclusive interview to restate her case.

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Marsha King with daughters, around 1991

ATLANTA (WOMENSENEWS)--After Marsha and David King finished law school in Georgia in 1976 and 1977 respectively and established themselves on a solid financial footing, they started the family that they wanted.

Today, every available surface of their living room is jammed with family photos.

"When we did have children, it was incredible; it was wonderful. We were two dedicated parents; we needed every asset we had," said Marsha King, whose two daughters are now grown.

King and her husband helped make legal history in 1973 as anonymous plaintiffs--Mr. and Mrs. John Doe--in Roe v. Wade, the case in which the U.S. Supreme Court recognized for the first time that women had a constitutional right to decide whether to continue a pregnancy prior to viability and that states could not unilaterally make all abortions illegal.

The names of Marsha and her husband David were never made public and appeared only in a letter contained in archival documents deposited at a Connecticut college by a New York lawyer who offered assistance on the case. Few people today are aware that the Kings were two of the three plaintiffs who sued the state of Texas over its restrictions on abortion.

This past summer Marsha King agreed to an exclusive interview with Women's eNews, after Operation Save America--a Dallas-based anti-choice group that has been aligned in recent years with a more famous plaintiff in the case, Norma McCorvey--mounted protests in July in Atlanta, where King now lives. (Operation Save America was formerly known as Operation Rescue.)

Restrictions Reminder

The protests drew little attention from the public and the press but King was reminded of increasing abortion restrictions during an election season when whether to guarantee reproductive rights is being debated openly.

"Roe is one of the most powerful things to happen to women and to potential parents and to people who are parents and have children and can't have more," King said. "There are all kinds of women who have abortions and they don't speak up for this right. They don't have the gumption. It's very disappointing if they don't support this right that they take advantage of."

Court documents argued that the Kings--referred to as Mary and John Doe--did not have a desire to have children at the time of the case because of medical issues and personal reasons. If a pregnancy occurred, they would seek to terminate it, but wished to avoid an illegal abortion.

In the interview, Marsha King spoke about something the court documents didn't reveal: that she understands the perils of illegal abortion personally. Only once before has she spoken to the press about this; that was in 1970 when the case was filed and was done under the promise of anonymity.

'I Had to Go to Mexico'

A physics major with a master's degree, King married in 1968 after meeting her husband at General Dynamics in Fort Worth, Texas, where they both worked.

Using the early high-dose birth control pills of the day made King sick, so she turned to other available birth control: a diaphragm, sponge, contraceptive foam. When the contraception failed in 1969, King sought an abortion.

"I had to go to Mexico to have an abortion," she told Women's eNews about an pregnancy before the Roe case was decided. "It was a little house. It wasn't a clinic. I remember being taken into a room and being given a shot that put me to sleep. And I remember being scared. I didn't appreciate the danger."

Two years later, contraceptives failed again, and King went to Mexico for a second abortion.

"We did not want to be parents at that time. We were so terrified of getting pregnant," said King. "We counted the days; we wouldn't have sex. We tried to be very careful. We were very disciplined and very fecund."

After her first abortion, King returned to Texas "inflamed with anger." She committed herself to working for women's rights organizations "80 to 100 hours a week."

Couple Helped Build on Precedent

Having a married couple in the Roe v. Wade case when it was first filed in 1970 helped build on the landmark Griswold v. Connecticut decision handed down five years earlier. In Griswold, the Supreme Court held for the first time that married partners had a "right of privacy" in the decision to use contraception, essentially legalizing birth control for Americans, wrote legal historian David J. Garrow in his 1994 book, "Liberty and Sexuality."

The Roe pleadings, filed in Texas on March 3, 1970, specified that the Texas anti-abortion law encroached upon the Does' "right to marital privacy." One Texas newspaper feature portrayed them, without names, as "a church-going, articulate young couple" who were motivated by "freedom of choice."

King and her husband were described as "the married couple in our case" by their lawyer, Sarah Weddingtion, when she presented oral arguments to the Supreme Court in December 1971. When the Roe v. Wade decision was released, the court ruled on procedural grounds that the Kings did not have standing because their legal proceedings described only a possible future need, rather than an existing problem that needed remedy.

As a result, it was another plaintiff in the case, Norma McCorvey, who became much better known for her role in Roe v. Wade. In 1980 McCorvey publicly revealed that she was the woman identified as "Jane Roe" in court documents. McCorvey publicly supported the decision until 1995.

That year McCorvey announced she had been converted to Christianity by Flip Benham, director of the group now called Operation Save America. She became a spokesperson for the anti-choice movement and also became a plaintiff in a lawsuit to overturn Roe that was later dismissed.

This summer, she completed a television commercial made by VirtueMedia, a producer of "sanctity of life" messages. In the ad, McCorvey called Roe "the biggest mistake of my life" and said that "abortion scars an untold number of post-abortive mothers."

McCorvey herself is not known to have ever had an abortion. When Roe was filed in 1970 to challenge abortion restrictions in Texas, McCorvey, then 22, had previously given up infants from two earlier pregnancies to relatives. She was pregnant, single and unemployed. Her efforts to obtain an abortion in Texas were rejected and she agreed to challenge the law. Before the court decision, she delivered a third child who was placed for adoption.

By contrast, King has no regrets about helping the Roe case. "Would I do it again? Absolutely," said King. "I worry that the right will be taken away. The people who are affected the most are the ones least able to defend it; the others think that it will always be there."

Cynthia L. Cooper is an independent journalist in New York and a former practicing lawyer who frequently writes about reproductive justice topics.

 
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