JANUARY 12, 2022
WHEN DID YOU first learn about abortion? Abortion feels like something I’ve always known about — like I was born knowing it — but reading Joshua Prager’s The Family Roe, I had to ask myself. Of Roe v. Wade, I am more precise: high school, maybe government class senior year. The textbook offered a line to the landmark ruling similar to Prager’s opening: “On January 22, 1973, the Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade, granting women the right to an abortion ‘free of interference by the State.’”
Prager spent 11 years in research — combing through letters, Supreme Court memos, news stories, and interviews — to provide a complete narrative detailing the legacy of Roe. Abortion permeates every class, culture, and religion, yet its poor coverage across generations has boiled it down into binary camps (pro-life and pro-choice), thereby leaving its complexities absent from the national conversation.
Abortion didn’t always stand front and center in politics. Even the 1976 confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens — three years after Roe was decided — never touched the matter. To understand what brought Jane Roe to this crucial point in political history, one must return to 1755. Prager sets the stage in storyteller fashion, describing Jane Roe’s ancestors and the land they were raised in. Roe’s ancestors were Acadians, French exiles who settled in Louisiana, 2,000 miles from their home colony. They farmed “tobacco, cotton, maize, molasses, sugar,” owning plantations and people. For them,
Flags changed; the Acadians had already seen the French, Spanish and Americans govern this land. When the Confederate Army conscripted their men, the Acadian soldier was all but indifferent to the cause. Some surrendered. Some deserted.
When the war ended, the Acadians had lost their slaves and infrastructure, and many became fishermen or trappers or lumberjacks. But having previously filled steamboats and trains with produce for export, they now struggled to feed their own. Poverty took hold. Starvation was endemic. Alcoholism, too.
One may wonder what all this history has to do with abortion. The answer is everything: the themes introduced in these early pages provide the necessary context for the reader to comprehend the trajectory of Roe’s life. The Acadians, colloquially known as Cajun, “came to be thought of as primitive, as ignorant.”
Jane Roe, born Norma McCorvey, came from a devout and sexually repressed family. Her Catholic grandparents, Emar and Bertha, “knew well the disallowance of contraception.” In the 1920s, abortion would often end the pregnancy and the mother’s life. Unexpected pregnancies became a running theme in Norma’s family. Her own sister, Velma, was raised by Emar and Bertha as their own, the child believing in her formative years that Norma was her niece, not her sister.
Norma’s father, Olin, converted the family to Jehovah’s Witnesses, whisking them off to Texas — a family reborn. The religious trauma inflicted on her, not just by her father but by the spiritual heritage of her family, would confuse her. “Norma knew what sex was,” and she’d “heard talk of banishing her pregnant aunt.” Jehovah appeared in all the “dark spaces” of her life. “When one schoolday on a softball field she bled from between her legs, she knew […] that God was punishing her.”
Norma did not have a healthy way to cope. “[S]he began to smoke like her dad and drink like her mom.” However, nothing would challenge her more than her sexuality. Norma’s emerging lesbianism repulsed her mother, Mary, and Norma’s parents shipped her off to a Catholic boarding school after she tried “inappropriate things” with a friend. Prager writes of Norma’s tenuous relationship with her mother: as Mary thought back, her “yellow hands tightening about the silver arms of the wheelchair […] she mouthed a confession: […] ‘I beat the fuck out of her.’”
The Roe baby wasn’t Norma’s first, nor her second. Her first child, Melissa, would be raised by Mary (though Norma would claim Mary had kidnapped Melissa), and her second, Jennifer, went through a closed adoption. “At nineteen years old, Norma knew little of abortion.” And abortion was illegal in Texas.
Each of Norma’s children carried their burdens of abandonment and identity crisis, though neither Melissa nor Jennifer knew the burden of being the “Roe baby.” Norma’s third child, Shelley, was born before Roe made it to the Supreme Court and had been immediately given up for adoption, just like Jennifer. But unlike her sisters, the Roe baby would fascinate the public. The pro-life camp sought a trophy — the life that survived to be heralded — and the media wanted the scoop. Shelley held her secret close until her 50s — she didn’t want the attention or to be used as a political prop; she wanted answers about where she came from. This sets Prager apart from other authors who have written about Roe; he gives Melissa, Jennifer, and Shelley space to share their truths.
Sarah Weddington, Roe’s defense lawyer in the Supreme Court case, would later regret choosing Norma as a plaintiff. In her lifetime, Norma proved to only be loyal to those who took care of her, switching from abortion advocate to pro-life activist. Two biographies were written about Norma, both rife with inaccuracies. Prager seeks to set the record straight, correcting the many lies Norma peddled since adolescence.
Prager presents people who might appear unsympathetic as multidimensional characters who are merely flawed and damaged humans. The Family Roe doesn’t pertain just to Norma, her children, and her troubled family, but also to all those who have fought to preserve or overturn Roe. George Tiller, murdered by a pro-life radical for providing third-trimester abortions, was once against the procedure altogether. Prager reminds the reader that stances on abortion can be as fluid and complex as the generations-long battle over it.
He offers no hint of his own political standing and ultimately leaves his complete history of Roe open to every reader. Each side, as Prager shows, has its rebels fighting the unjust establishment. He fills gaps in the collective consciousness by addressing obscurities in the historical narrative. For instance, Prager reveals that District Attorney Henry Wade was pro-choice, an opinion he could not share due to the era and the nature of his post. Prager also writes of a Gallup poll mentioned by Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun: “Significant majorities of Republicans, Democrats, and Catholics agreed that ‘the decision to have an abortion should be made solely by a woman and her physician.’”
Despite its moniker, the pro-life movement isn’t the only side seeking to preserve life. Curtis Boyd, whose life features heavily throughout the book, performed abortions openly prior to the Roe ruling, seeing patients through a referral network operated by priests. Boyd says that he’d come to see the procedure as a “means of fulfilment, of self-preservation.” For him, abortion isn’t just about termination but is also preventative medicine to preserve a woman’s psychological health.
“I wanted to be the first of my friends to be married and have a baby. I wanted everything to fall in line the way it should,” Norma said. By the time of the Roe case, she struggled with drug addiction, alcoholism, and depression and had attempted suicide more than once. Prager’s book does more than educate the reader on legal history; it shows how one changes over a lifetime. It is a study of the human experience. Prager cites Blackmun, who wrote in the ruling’s preamble that it is often “‘exposure to the raw edges of human existence’ that determines which side of the divide one is on.” And Norma had been divided every which way.
Norma was not malicious in her lies; she was trying to survive. She’d been poverty-stricken most of her life and poorly educated, and she appeared unabashed. This made her the perfect choice to be Jane Roe.
Linda Coffee, the co-counsel for Norma, wished to bring the subject of abortion to the court to have it legalized, but she’d run into a problem: “I couldn’t figure out how I could find a pregnant woman who was willing to come forward.” Abortion had been wrapped up in sex and shame — a private matter no one wished to share with the public.
Neither side comes out perfect. Prager points out how those on either side of the aisle acted questionably. Norma could have had the abortion she wanted, but if she had, Roe would have been rendered moot and never would have reached the Supreme Court. Norma needed to be pregnant for the case to be valid. On the other side, Mildred Fay Jefferson, the first Black woman to attend Harvard Medical School, argued with some contradiction.
Jefferson vowed to be a doctor when she was a child, though her gender and skin color would make that journey difficult. After receiving her degree, she struggled to establish a career as a doctor and, later, surgeon. She’d been told no one would want a Black doctor. To make her life more complicated, she fell in love with a white man, Shane Cunningham. “Whereas extra-marital sex could cost her a job, marital sex could land her in prison.” When the two eventually agreed to marry, Jefferson had one condition. To live in the 1960s “was to experience hypocrisy, discrimination, ‘extreme unfairness.’ And she, a black woman, would not, she told him, conceive a child only to subject it to such injustice.”
Jefferson influenced the pro-life movement’s radicalization. She devoted her life to overturning Roe, leaving her practice to argue, in public and on television, that the United States was becoming a “culture of extermination.” In one television appearance, she converted President Ronald Reagan from pro-choice to pro-life, making him a lifelong friend. Mildred, who chose not to have children because of hypocrisy, discrimination, and extreme unfairness, would embody these in her fight against abortion — even in cases of rape and incest. The very woman who refused to have children herself described childbearing as “the essence and reasons we exist as female human beings.” Later on, Jefferson would lie, claiming she never had children because she was infertile.
These instances highlight Roe’s multifaceted legacy. It’s a story filled with all the hallmarks of an American family drama: premarital sex, drugs, alcohol, unexpected pregnancy. But Prager’s book isn’t simply about family lies, twists, and spectacles — these are just the spice in the first complete biography of the family who accidentally made history, the individuals who have shaped the debate surrounding abortion in the United States today. To see the whole picture, simply read The Family Roe.