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Identity of 'Roe baby' revealed after decades of secrecy

Shelley Lynn Thornton, 51, the woman whose conception led to the landmark Roe v. Wade abortion case, has revealed herself publicly for the first time as the "Roe baby."

The child whose conception was the genesis of the lawsuit that became Roe v. Wade is now a 51-year-old woman ready to tell her story.

Shelley Lynn Thornton has come forward after decades of secrecy to publicly identify herself as the "Roe baby" in the new book "The Family Roe: An American Story" by Joshua Prager, which will be released on Sept. 14 and was excerpted in The Atlantic on Thursday.

“My association with Roe started and ended because I was conceived," Thornton is quoted saying in the excerpt.

Her birth mother's lawsuit became the landmark 1973 Supreme Court case that secured the right for women to legally have an abortion across the country, even though she never went through with the procedure.

"In his majority opinion, Justice Harry Blackmun noted that a 'pregnancy will come to term before the usual appellate process is complete,'" Prager writes.

Still, the Dallas waitress' challenge to the Texas law resulted in a sweeping change of the laws across the country.

Texas is once again the epicenter of the abortion fight after the Supreme Court declined to block a restrictive state law banning abortions as early as six weeks into pregnancy and allowing anyone in the U.S. to sue abortion providers or others who help women get the procedure after that time frame.

Thornton is the daughter of Norma McCorvey, the woman originally identified in court documents by the pseudonym Jane Roe. McCorvey, who revealed her identity shortly after the landmark case, died at 69 in 2017 after a complicated public life.

Attorney Gloria Allred and Norma McCorvey during a rally in Burbank, Calif., on July 4, 1989.Bob Riha, Jr. / Getty Images

McCorvey was initially pro-choice, then switched to an anti-abortion stance following a religious conversion, and then revealed in a stunning deathbed confession in a documentary that she was paid exorbitant money by a religious organization to pose as an anti-abortion activist even though she didn't believe in that view.

Thornton was born in a Dallas hospital in 1970 as the third of McCorvey's three children, none of whom she raised. She was 2 years old by the time the Roe v. Wade ruling came down and living with her adoptive parents in Texas, and her existence itself became a symbol to anti-abortion activists.

Thornton's adoptive mother, Ruth Schmidt, told her when she was young that she had been adopted, and Thornton said she often yearned to know about her biological parents. McCorvey began searching for Thornton in 1989, appearing on the "TODAY" show expressing her hope to find her third child. She already knew her two other daughters, but had only scant information about Thornton.

An investigation by the National Enquirer led to Thornton being found as a teen living outside Seattle and the publication informed her that she was McCorvey's biological daughter. However, at her request, her name was kept out of the ensuing article, which ran in 1989.

Thornton began "shaking all over and crying" when learning the difficult truth that she was the child of the plaintiff in the famous case.

The abortion debate entered Thornton's own life in 1991, when she became pregnant at 20. She decided to have the child, but didn't understand why the abortion decision should be "a government concern."

In the National Enquirer article, she was described as pro-life, which had bothered her because, as she told Prager, she had told the reporter "that she couldn’t see herself having an abortion."

To Thornton, pro-life represented “a bunch of religious fanatics going around and doing protests.”

But then, she also didn't consider herself pro-choice.

"Norma was pro-choice, and it seemed to Shelley that to have an abortion would render her no different than Norma," Prager wrote.

Still, abortion was “not part of who I was," which is why she had the baby.

Thornton, who is now a mother of three living in Arizona, nearly met McCorvey in person in 1994 before an angry phone conversation derailed the meeting. McCorvey said Thornton should have thanked her for not aborting her.

"I was like, ‘What?! I’m supposed to thank you for getting knocked up … and then giving me away,’” Thornton recalled saying. "I told her I would never, ever thank her for not aborting me."

Thornton has since met her two half sisters, but she did not reunite with McCorvey before her death.

After years of keeping her secret and worrying that someone else would publicly share her story, she decided to share it herself.

"I want everyone to understand," she said, "that this is something I’ve chosen to do."

Elisha Fieldstadt contributed.