First Roe, now Doe: The legal facade crumbles

Plaintiff in the other key 1973 abortion case, Doe vs. Bolton, publicly recants the false story the Supreme Court believed

by Roy Maynard

A man comes to the door of Sandra Cano's south Atlanta home; he's a neighbor in this poor, mostly minority community. This Hispanic man has gotten a ticket, he explains in Spanish. He asks Mrs. Cano if she would talk to the court for him. Her hands and schedule are full this morning; she is talking to a reporter and taking care of two grandchildren. Still, she tells the man not to worry, she'll speak for him. "I'm the neighborhood helper," Mrs. Cano explains. "My Spanish is better than their English, so sometimes they need me to be their voice."

Mrs. Cano has been in this role before. In 1970 she became Mary Doe, a representative of women seeking abortion. Although she never spoke in court (her lawyers did that), she was the named plaintiff in a pivotal Supreme Court case, Doe vs. Bolton, that opened the floodgates of abortion on demand. But the case was built on lies, she says, and she's coming forward now to set straight the history of this American holocaust. Her first public appearance was slated for last weekend at the dedication of the National Memorial for the Unborn in Chattanooga.

She was to appear with Norma McCorvey, who announced in 1995 that she had become a Christian and wanted to spend the rest of her life working against abortion. Mrs. McCorvey was Jane Roe in Roe vs. Wade.

Roe is the better known of the two 1973 Supreme Court cases concerning abortion. But the Doe case is the one at the center of the partial-birth abortion debate. Roe legalized abortion but only through the second trimester; Doe expanded the newfound right to include abortion right up until birth, if the mother's "health" is at stake. And because "health" was defined in that case as everything from physical well-being to psychological and financial well-being, abortion became an unfettered practice.

"I'm just now learning a lot of the details, and I'm really shocked," Mrs. Cano, now 49, told WORLD. "Abortion is against every belief I have. I've never been for abortion. I never went for an abortion. I was not the person they say I was. This case was based on lies."

In 1970, Sandra Cano (then Sandra Besing) was "young and ignorant," she says. She found herself pregnant and alone; her husband was in jail and two of her children had been taken from her by county welfare workers. She went to the Legal Aid clinic in Atlanta, looking for help in divorcing her husband and regaining custody of her children.

What she received instead was an interview with ACLU lawyer Margie Pitts Hames, who gave her vague promises of help. Mrs. Cano didn't know she wasn't a Legal Aid attorney, and it wasn't until weeks later that the subject of abortion was even broached. "She asked what I thought about it, and I said I was against it," Mrs. Cano said.

Still, lawyer Mrs. Hames (now deceased) felt at the time she was "helping people," according to an interview she gave in 1989 to an Atlanta-area legal gazette.

Mrs. Hames and a few other activists "dipped into our own pockets to help Sandra" pay for the abortion she didn't want, "even though it would have been better for our legal case for her to remain pregnant." Mrs. Cano recalls how they pressured her to have the abortion, and just three days before she was scheduled to abort, she fled.

"There's no way I could have killed this baby," she says now. "I didn't need a baby. I didn't want the baby. I didn't want to be pregnant, but I was not going to take a baby's life."

Mrs. Cano took refuge in Oklahoma with her grandmother. She refused to come home until Mrs. Hames assured her over the phone that she wouldn't have to have the abortion.

Melissa was born November 6, 1970, and placed for adoption.

These facts were seemingly inconvenient for Mrs. Hames; in later court testimony, Mrs. Hames gave the Supreme Court the following account of Mrs. Cano's noble struggle for reproductive rights:

Her reasons for abortion were several.... She applied to the public hospital for an abortion, where she was eligible for free medical care. Her application there was denied. She later applied through a private physician to a private hospital abortion committee, where her abortion application was approved. She did not obtain the abortion, however, because she did not have the cash to deposit and pay her hospital bill in advance.

Grady Memorial Hospital is the public hospital Mrs. Hames was citing, but that hospital has no records of ever treating Mrs. Cano or reviewing her case. Grady's records division wrote and said, "Grady Health System is unable to locate" any records despite spending 32 hours searching under every possible name and variation.

This massaging of the facts recalls the recent confession of abortion lobbyist Ron Fitzsimmons--but Mrs. Hames never owned up to her lie. In 1989, Mrs. Cano went to some Christian lawyers (one of whom was Michael Farris, who now heads the Home School Legal Defense Foundation) to get her records unsealed. Mrs. Hames objected, telling the court that there was nothing more to be gained, that the case was decided 16 years before and that was that.

But the records were unsealed, and Mr. Farris says he was sure enough of the fraud they contained that he and attorney Wendell Byrd asked to have the entire case reopened. That motion was denied because by then, the law against abortion had been struck from Georgia's books.

Mr. Farris told WORLD that at the time, he was impressed by Mrs. Cano's resolve and openness. "She was a sincere, repentant believer," Mr. Farris says. "I was comfortable with her honesty then, and I'm comfortable with it now."

For nearly 25 years now, Mrs. Cano says she's carried the guilt of participating in "legalized murder." "I know there are babies being killed and I know that I have something to do with it," she says. "I didn't know about it and I didn't consent to anything, but that's my name on the affidavit. That's something that's going to be linked to me forever."

The ramifications of the case became painfully clear to her in 1992. Melissa had reentered Mrs. Cano's life; now, as a young woman, Melissa was pregnant. The baby was born prematurely, at about the age of 20 weeks. Cody weighed 9.2 ounces; the doctors said he was too small to live, too small even to take life-supporting measures. Cody wasn't given oxygen or even a covering. Mrs. Cano, nearly hysterical, appealed to the doctors to do something to help, to at least comfort her grandbaby.

"They told me that's not a baby, it's a fetus," Mrs. Cano says. "And I knew it was because 20 years before I was stupid and I let them use me, that this could happen." Cody was left to die two hours after he was born.

Sandra Cano says she's a Christian--she was raised by a nominally Baptist family, though only recently has she had a real relationship with God, she says.

Mrs. Cano says she's wanted to speak out for some time, but she's been wary of lawyers and the media. It wasn't until she met and was befriended by Sybil Lash, an aide to a Georgia state legislator, that she became bold enough to come forward. "Sandra wants to do the right thing," says Mrs. Lash. "But it's hard for her to trust people. It's even harder for her to understand that the Supreme Court decision can still stand, after the case is proven to be based on lies. I guess it's hard for us to understand that, too."

Mrs. Lash and others have worked to verify Mrs. Cano's story, and they have an impressive stack of documents to show she's telling the truth. They have letters from attorneys and hospitals, Supreme Court transcripts and affidavits.

Mrs. Cano's first public appearance, appropriately, will be at Chattanooga's memorial. The memorial, which stands on the site where an abortion clinic once operated, includes a granite wall where repentant, grieving families have placed markers with messages to their aborted children. "We loved you too late," reads one; another says, "I'll hold you in heaven."

Article used by permission of World Magazine. Copyright 1997.