exposing the dark side of adoption
Register Log in

Roe v. Wade role just a page in rocky life story


By Gayle White /  The Atlanta Journal and Constitution

January 28, 2003

For 18 years, Sandra Cano lived with two identities.

She was Sandra, a struggling mother of four children --- two given up for adoption, two mostly in foster care --- trying to make a go of life despite a string of marriages, illnesses and financial difficulties.

And she was Mary Doe, the unnamed plaintiff in Doe v. Bolton, a Georgia abortion case heard by the U.S. Supreme Court on the same day as the better-known Roe v. Wade, which led to the legalization of abortion in 1973.

By unsealing court records in 1989, Cano merged Mary with Sandra --- only making her life more complex.

Today Cano plans to mark the 30th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion at a vigil with abortion opponents. One of her life missions, she said, is to overturn the Supreme Court ruling and "save the babies." Another is to free one of her own children from prison. Her only son is serving a life sentence in prison.

In an incredible twist, he was accused of murder along with his girlfriend, who may also be his sister --- the baby Cano was carrying when, as Mary Doe, she became a symbol in the fight for legal abortion.

"God can deal with her," Cano said. "I have too much anger."

People on either side of the vociferous abortion debate are likely to find fodder for their arguments in Cano's life.

Sandra Race, the daughter of an Atlanta sanitation worker, was 17 on June 7, 1965, when she married Joel Lee Bensing, a part-time construction worker she had known for about a week.

Eleven months later, Sandra gave birth to her first child, Joel Lee Jr. A daughter, April, followed in November 1967. When a third baby came along in 1969, the Bensings gave her up for adoption.

Sandra's husband was in and out of work, in and out of jail, and in and out of their marriage. Sandra, who took a job as a Krystal waitress, said she was unraveling emotionally and even spent time in a mental institution.

Soon the older two Bensing children were placed in foster care.

That was Sandra's life in 1970, when, 22 and pregnant again, she approached the Atlanta Legal Aid Society to help her find a lawyer.

She said she wanted to divorce Bensing and reclaim her children from foster care. Legal affidavits and court transcripts in Doe v. Bolton say she wanted an abortion.

For years she has maintained that she was used by lawyers who wanted to test Georgia's abortion laws.

"I can't honestly say what I knew about the case," she said. "I always knew it was something to do with women's liberation."

Georgia's abortion laws at the time were considered progressive. Unlike some states, which enforced 19th century laws allowing therapeutic abortions only to save the life of the mother, Georgia had adopted a law in 1968 that permitted abortion to preserve the mother's physical or mental health.

To receive an abortion, however, a woman had to run a gantlet of doctors --- her own and two more --- then be approved by a hospital committee.

Court records indicate that Sandra, who was eligible for free medical care, was denied an abortion on April 10, 1970, at Grady Memorial Hospital, then --- as now --- Atlanta's public hospital. Her affidavit says she was nine weeks pregnant at the time.

A few days later, her Legal Aid lawyers filed Doe v. Bolton (referring to Georgia Attorney General Arthur K. Bolton), and the case began its journey to the Supreme Court.

In the meantime, acting at the behest of Sandra's lawyers, Dr. Donald Block, an obstetrician and gynecologist practicing at Georgia Baptist Hospital, applied for permission to perform an abortion there.

Block said Sandra wanted to end the pregnancy. "Nobody told her to have an abortion," he recalled. "Lord knows I would have never done that."

But by the time the procedure was to take place, Sandra said, she had fled to Oklahoma --- Joel Lee Bensing's home state --- to avoid having an abortion.

When she returned to Atlanta, she was seven months pregnant, "much too late to think about an abortion," Block said.

He delivered Sandra's daughter in early November. Like her sister, born a year earlier, the baby was immediately released for adoption. Sandra was voluntarily sterilized after the birth.

While Sandra was dealing with giving up a little girl, her husband was charged with taking one: a 6-year-old southeast Atlanta child.

In January 1971, Bensing, 23, pleaded guilty to kidnapping and molesting three children over a three-month period. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison.

Sandra's divorce became final May 17, 1971. Her ex-husband died in 1988.

'She has changed her mind'

As Sandra was trying to pull her life back together, Doe v. Bolton was wending its way through the court system.

In the Supreme Court of 1973, Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton were "thought of as utterly co-equal cases," said Emory University historian David Garrow, author of "Liberty and Sexuality --- The Right to Privacy and the Making of Roe v. Wade."

Had the Roe case gone to the Supreme Court without Doe, Garrow said, the Supreme Court's ruling might have been much narrower.

In the Roe case, the Supreme Court struck down Texas' abortion law as a violation of a woman's right to privacy. In Doe, the court ruled that the conditions even of Georgia's progressive law were too restrictive.

America's Catholic bishops saw the significance of Doe v. Bolton. In a paper marking the 30th anniversary of legalized abortion, they wrote that Roe "appeared to create a right with some limitations." The Doe ruling, the bishops added, was "so broad that it effectively allows abortion for any reason at any time."

Sandra remembers hearing on Jan. 22, 1973, that the Supreme Court had legalized abortion. "I was devastated," she said.

For 15 years she kept quiet about her own role. Then, in 1988, she decided to speak out.

Atlanta's abortion clinics were under siege by Operation Rescue. More than 800 members of the anti-abortion organization were arrested in clinic blockades during the summer and fall.

Sandra said she supported them but thought she could do more as Mary Doe.

Without the aid of a lawyer, she petitioned the court to unseal the Doe v. Bolton records "so I can get the legal help I need to undo [an] injustice that was done."

In January 1989, U.S. District Judge J. Owen Forrester signed a consent order opening the sealed file.

The late Margie Pitts Hames, Sandra's lead attorney when Doe v. Bolton went before the Supreme Court, said at the time that opening the court file "was a very personal decision on her part. . . . she has changed her mind about the abortion issue, and she's entitled to do that."

By then Sandra had been divorced twice more and was married to stonemason Saturnino Cano.

With the records unsealed, Sandra hoped for two results: That Doe v. Bolton would be overturned and that she would find the daughter she bore in the midst of the case.

Incest charges filed

Days after the records were unsealed, Sandra got the call she had been wanting. She recalled the words on the other end: "This is your daughter, Melissa."

Now, Sandra believed, two of her four children were back in her life. About 10 years earlier, she had located her son Joel Lee, who used the last name Domingues.

Sandra and Melissa arranged to meet at South DeKalb Mall on Valentine's Day 1989. "We were both a little uneasy with each other," Sandra said, but soon Melissa and her family had moved into Sandra's house, where Joel Lee lived intermittently.

In 1992, Melissa went public as Sandra's daughter when she gave birth to a 9.4-ounce baby boy more than three months premature. Melissa and Sandra used the death of the infant, whom they pointed out was perfectly formed, to speak out against abortion.

The relationship between the two women was rocky, however. A major point of contention was Sandra's suspicion that a romance had developed between Joel Lee and Melissa.

By the late 1990s, Melissa had three children and was going by the name Melissa Erives. Sandra's son Joel Lee was married and had a daughter.

In 1999 Douglas County authorities came to share Sandra's concern about the relationship between Melissa and Joel Lee.

On March 9, 1999, an investigator and a social worker for the Douglas County Department of Family and Children Services, following up on a complaint, went to a mobile home where Melissa was reportedly living with Joel Lee Domingues.

When social worker Lori Jackson asked Melissa about Joel Lee's parents, Melissa identified Sandra as his biological mother, according to a report filed by investigator J.M. Wilson. "Melissa said that Sandra was also her biological mother," Wilson wrote.

Melissa Erives and Joel Lee Domingues were indicted by a Douglas County grand jury on incest charges, but the case never went to trial.

Charges in DeKalb County took precedence --- murder charges.

Love letters from prison

The murder victim was Melissa's sister-in-law in her adoptive family. The motive was believed to be a family estate worth almost 1 million dollars.

Inez Fuss, 72, Melissa's adoptive mother, had been killed with an ax in 1996, and one of Melissa's adopted brothers was in prison for the murder. Inez Fuss died without a will.

When Kelly Fuss, the wife of another brother, was found dead with multiple stab wounds in her kitchen in June 1999, Melissa Erives and Joel Lee Domingues were charged with the murder, along with Inez Fuss's biological daughter.

The two women pleaded guilty to lesser charges. Melissa is serving 10 years in prison for burglary and theft by taking. Joel Lee Domingues went to trial. From jail, he wrote love letters to Melissa, expressing his desire to marry her when they got out.

Although his attorney portrayed him as a pawn with an IQ of 73 and a personality disorder, he was found guilty of murder. Previous convictions for theft and forgery were introduced as aggravating circumstances, and he was sentenced to life in prison.

Melissa testified against him.

Says son wrongly convicted

Melissa Erives now denies being Sandra Cano's biological daughter.

In reply to a request for an interview about Mary Doe and the aftermath of Doe v. Bolton, she said --- through a Georgia Department of Corrections spokeswoman --- "I'm not that baby. I was raised to believe I am, but I'm not."

In April 1999, the Douglas County Department of Family and Children Services received something that purportedly was a DNA test backing Melissa's contention, but District Attorney David McDade said there was no evidence it was authentic.

Although her son's motion for a new trial was denied in December, Sandra Cano has hopes his conviction will be overturned. Earlier this month, he filed a notice of appeal.

"There's an innocent boy sitting in prison," she said, "and we're fighting to get him out."

'Wants to do the right thing'

Sandra, now 54, has plenty to occupy her. She has health problems --- she said she had survived cervical cancer and a stroke, plus struggles with diabetes and high blood pressure.

Several years ago she reconnected with another of her children, daughter April, who lives in Texas. Sandra is raising two of April's children, developmentally disabled boys 12 and 6 years old.

"I wasn't really a mother to my own children," she said. "I've become mother to my grandkids."

She and Cano divorced in 1996. Later that year --- on New Year's Eve, high on $35-a-bottle champagne, she said --- she married her fifth husband, a man several years younger who, she said, helps her with raising her grandsons. She retains the name Cano publicly.

For several years she spoke out against abortion across the country. Sybil Lash of Lawrenceville, an anti-abortion activist, usually traveled with her, and when Sandra decided to be baptized on March 18, 2000, Lash walked into the water with her.

"She wants to do the right thing," Lash said.

Although Sandra said she lives in south Atlanta on $552-a-month disability ---and sends $100 a month to her son in prison --- she said she accepts only expense reimbursement for appearances.

"I speak to let people know I never believed in abortion," she said. "It's like blood on my hands."

Sandra is hanging her hopes for outlawing abortion on a case being prepared by the Texas Justice Foundation, which claims as its mission protecting individual rights and limiting government.

Through a project called Operation Outcry, the foundation is collecting testimony from women who have suffered trauma after having abortions. It plans to assert that this new evidence about abortion's aftereffects warrants reconsidering its legalization.

Foundation lawyers will file papers in Texas on behalf of Norma McCorvey, the Roe in Roe v. Wade, and Sandra in the Northern District of Georgia in a bid to get the cases reopened on the ground they are no longer just, said foundation lawyer Kathleen Cassidy Goodman.

Sandra said she had no doubt that Melissa is her daughter and, despite everything, she's glad she gave birth to her.

"Melissa has destroyed my life," she said. "But I have no regrets that I gave her life."

Staff researchers Joni Zeccola, Alice Wertheim and Sharon Gaus contributed to this article.

2003 Jan 28