McCorvey was born in Simmesport, Louisiana. She was briefly raised at her family's residence in Lettsworth in Pointe Coupee Parish. Later in her childhood, the family moved to Houston, Texas. McCorvey's father left the family when she was 13 years old and her parents subsequently divorced. She and her older brother were raised by their mother Mildred, a violent alcoholic. McCorvey's father died on September 27, 1995. She was of partial Cajun ancestry.
McCorvey had entered a Catholic boarding school prior to her minor troubles with law enforcement that started at the age of ten, when she robbed the cash register at a gas station and ran away to Oklahoma City with a friend. They tricked a hotel worker into letting them rent a room, and were there for two days when a maid walked in on her and her female friend kissing. McCorvey was arrested and brought to court, where she was declared a ward of the state and sent to state-run institutions.
Later, McCorvey was sent to the State School for Girls in Gainesville, Texas, on and off from ages 11 to 15. She said this was the happiest time of her childhood, and every time she was sent home, would purposely do something bad to be sent back. After being released, McCorvey lived with her mother’s cousin, who allegedly raped her every night for three weeks. When McCorvey's mother found out, her cousin claimed McCorvey was lying.
While working at a restaurant, Norma met Woody McCorvey (born 1940), and she married him at the age of 16. She later left him after he allegedly assaulted her. She moved in with her mother and gave birth to her first child, Melissa, in 1965. After Melissa's birth, McCorvey developed a serious drinking problem. Soon after, she came out and began identifying as a lesbian. She went on a weekend trip to visit two friends, and left her baby with her mother. When she returned, her mother replaced Melissa with a baby doll and reported her to the police as having abandoned her baby, and called the police to take her out of the house. She would not tell her where Melissa was for weeks, and finally let her visit her child after three months. She let McCorvey move back in, and one day woke Norma up after a long day of work. She told her to sign insurance papers, and Norma did so without reading. However, she actually signed adoption papers, giving her mother custody of Melissa, and was then kicked out of the house. The following year, McCorvey again became pregnant and gave birth to a baby, who was placed for adoption.
In 1969, at the age of 21, McCorvey became pregnant a third time. She returned to Dallas. According to McCorvey, friends advised her that she should assert falsely that she had been raped and that she could thereby obtain a legal abortion under Texas's law which prohibited abortion; sources differ over whether the Texas law had such a rape exception. Due to lack of police evidence or documentation, the scheme was not successful and McCorvey would later admit the situation was a fabrication. She attempted to obtain an illegal abortion, but the respective clinics had been closed down by authorities.
Eventually, McCorvey was referred to attorneys Linda Coffee and Sarah Weddington, who were looking for pregnant women who were seeking abortions. The case took three years of trials to reach the Supreme Court of the United States, and Norma never attended a single trial. In the meantime, she had given birth to the baby in question, who was eventually adopted.
McCorvey revealed herself to the press as being "Jane Roe" soon after the decision's issuance and stated that she sought an abortion because she was unemployable and greatly depressed. In the 1980s, McCorvey asserted that she had been the "pawn" of two young and ambitious lawyers (Weddington and Coffee) who were looking for a plaintiff with whom they could challenge the Texas state law prohibiting abortion.
In her first book, the 1994 autobiography, I Am Roe, McCorvey wrote of her sexual orientation. For many years, she had lived quietly in Dallas with her long-time partner, Connie Gonzales. "We're not like other lesbians, going to bars," she explained in a New York Times interview. "We're lesbians together. We're homers." That same year, she became a Christian and voiced remorse for her part in the Supreme Court decision. McCorvey worked as part of the pro-life movement, such as Operation Rescue.
At a signing of I Am Roe, McCorvey was befriended by evangelical minister and National Director of Operation Rescue Flip Benham and later baptized on August 8, 1995, by Benham, in a Dallas, Texas, backyard swimming pool, an event that was filmed for national television. Two days later she announced that she had quit her job at the abortion clinic she was working at, and had become an advocate of Operation Rescue's campaign to make abortion illegal.
McCorvey's second book, Won by Love, was published in 1998. She explained her change on the stance of abortion with the following comments:
I was sitting in O.R.'s offices when I noticed a fetal development poster. The progression was so obvious, the eyes were so sweet. It hurt my heart, just looking at them. I ran outside and finally, it dawned on me. 'Norma', I said to myself, 'They're right'. I had worked with pregnant women for years. I had been through three pregnancies and deliveries myself. I should have known. Yet something in that poster made me lose my breath. I kept seeing the picture of that tiny, 10-week-old embryo, and I said to myself, that's a baby! It's as if blinders just fell off my eyes and I suddenly understood the truth—that's a baby!
I felt crushed under the truth of this realization. I had to face up to the awful reality. Abortion wasn't about 'products of conception'. It wasn't about 'missed periods'. It was about children being killed in their mother's wombs. All those years I was wrong. Signing that affidavit, I was wrong. Working in an abortion clinic, I was wrong. No more of this first trimester, second trimester, third trimester stuff. Abortion—at any point—was wrong. It was so clear. Painfully clear.
Shortly thereafter, McCorvey released a statement that affirmed her entrance into the Roman Catholic Church, and she was confirmed into the church as a full member.
Later in life, McCorvey stated that she was no longer a lesbian. On August 17, 1998, she was received into the Roman Catholic church by Father Frank Pavone, the International Director of Priests for Life and Father Edward Robinson in Dallas.
In February 2005, McCorvey petitioned the Supreme Court to overturn the 1973 decision with McCorvey v. Hill, arguing that she had standing to do so as one of the original litigants and that the case should be heard once again in light of what she claimed was evidence that the procedure harms women, but the petition was denied, because the Supreme Court considered the matter to be moot.
On January 22, 2008, McCorvey endorsed Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul. McCorvey stated, "I support Ron Paul for president because we share the same goal, that of overturning Roe v. Wade. He has never wavered on the issue of being pro-life and has a voting record to prove it. He understands the importance of civil liberties for all, including the unborn."
McCorvey remained active in pro-life demonstrations, including one she participated in before President Barack Obama's commencement address to the graduates of the University of Notre Dame (the decision to invite the President to speak at the university on May 17, 2009 was controversial because his views on abortion conflicted with the teachings of the Catholic Church, with which the University is affiliated). McCorvey was arrested on the first day of U.S. Senate hearings for the confirmation of the presidential nomination to the Supreme Court of the United States of Sonia Sotomayor, after McCorvey and another protester began shouting during Senator Al Franken's opening statement.
Lake of Fire, a 2006 pro-choice documentary by Tony Kaye on the abortion controversy in the United States, features McCorvey discussing her involvement in Roe v. Wade and her subsequent conversion to Christianity.
McCorvey made her acting debut in Doonby, shot on location in 2010 in the small central Texas town of Smithville. Starring John Schneider, Jenn Gotzon and Robert Davi, the film previewed at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival and was released in late 2011.
McCorvey died of heart failure in Katy, Texas, on February 18, 2017, at the age of 69.McCorvey, Norma & Meisler, Andy (1994). I Am Roe. New York: Harper Collins. ISBN 0-06-017010-7.
——— & Thomas, Gary (1997). Won by Love. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers. ISBN 0-7852-7237-2.