Roe v Wade abortion case is tested again

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"Jane Roe", whose name is immortalised in the Supreme Court judgment that gave American women the constitutional right to an abortion, could soon be back in court, trying to get that landmark judgment reversed.

In papers lodged with the US attorney-general yesterday, Ms Roe, whose real name is Norma McCorvey, attached her name to a case already filed in New Jersey that aims to revisit the whole question of abortion rights.She now claims she was "used and exploited" by the women's movement.

According to her lawyer, this is a rare - perhaps the only - example of a litigant in a landmark case seeking to return to court many years later to say the judgment was wrong and plead for it to be overturned.

Ms McCorvey, who has eschewed the limelight since revealing her identity several years ago, barely overcame her shyness to talk to reporters yesterday. She stumbled over her words and almost broke down as she read her statement and sections of her affidavit.

Her introduction encapsulated the original drama in all its spare simplicity: "My name is Norma McCorvey and I reside in Dallas, Texas. I was the woman designated as 'Jane Roe' as plaintiff in Roe v Wade, the US Supreme Court decision that legalised abortion. On 22 January, 1973, the Supreme Court declared it was unconstitutional for my state to prohibit doctors from performing abortions."

She went on to complain that the case was essentially a fraud. "As 'Jane Roe' of Roe v Wade," she said, "I was used and exploited in the women's movement and the Supreme Court of the United States."

She had met her lawyers in the case only twice, she said, the first time over pizza and plentiful beer. She had not understood the word "abortion", which she associated only with war films in which pilots "aborted" their missions. It was only later, when she took jobs in abortion clinics, she understood that "abortion is the taking of a human life" and a "fundamental violation of the mother's interests".

Ms McCorvey's change of heart on abortion rights became public several years ago when she revealed her identity, and it was a gift for the fervent anti-abortion lobby, which has never been reconciled to the Roe v Wade judgment. However the decision of "Jane Roe" to associate herself with the New Jersey case brings the issue back into the public domain at a highly sensitive time.

With the presidential election in November, the religious right is angling to have the Republican nominee, now confirmed as George W Bush, undertake to name a running mate who is anti-abortion and to promise also that he will make an anti-abortion stance a "litmus test" for any Supreme Court judges he might appoint while president. As many as three judges could be appointed in the tenure of the next president - sufficient number to swing the Supreme Court against Roe v Wade.

The case in New Jersey to which Ms McCorvey and others have attached their names was not initiated as a direct attempt to overturn Roe v Wade. It was brought by a group of women and two doctors who say that women should have the legal right not to be coerced into having an abortion. As can happen with such cases, however, it has become a vehicle for something rather different.

Lawyers for the group argue that any woman seeking an abortion should have the legal right to be told that they are carrying a human being and to be shown a sonogram of the foetus. This would oblige the doctor or clinic to provide that information or risk being sued.

Abortion rights advocates object that such rights would place additional and unacceptable pressure on the woman; also that it would reopen the issue of when a foetus should be considered a human being. This was the crux of Roe v Wade and the considerations were set out at length in the final judgment. Reopening the issue of when life begins, however, is exactly what the New Jersey litigants want to do.

It is possible that the judge appointed to hear the case in New Jersey - no date has yet been fixed- will rule that there is no case to be argued and summarily dismiss it. The governor of New Jersey, Christine Todd Whitman, is unusual in being an unapologetically "pro-choice" Republican. If it does go to trial, however, it is bound to add a new and divisive element to an election campaign that is already forecast to turn nasty.