Jane Roe, who battled for and then against abortion rights, has a forgotten history.


In this April 26, 1989, file photo, Norma McCorvey, left, known as “Jane Roe” in the seminal Roe v. Wade decision of 1973, is pictured in front of the US Supreme Court beside lawyer Gloria Allred. via Getty Images, Greg Gibson/AFP remove caption

switch to caption via Getty Images, Greg Gibson/AFP

In this April 26, 1989, file photo, Norma McCorvey, left, known as “Jane Roe” in the seminal Roe v. Wade decision of 1973, is pictured in front of the US Supreme Court beside lawyer Gloria Allred.

via Getty Images, Greg Gibson/AFP Unknown to many people, one of the biggest figures in politics this year is a woman.

Numerous political candidates have cited the 1973 Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade since it was overturned, but it might be simple to gloss over that name without considering who Roe actually was. Roe is short for Jane Roe, who is actually Norma McCorvey, the person who requested the abortion in the first place.

In our most recent NPR Politics Podcast Book Club conversation, we spoke with Joshua Prager, the author of The Family Roe. Through McCorvey’s personal narrative, the book examines the political history of abortion in America. That storyline combines true conviction and opportunism with sex, drugs, politics, class, fame, and religion to produce, in Prager’s words, a “uniquely American” tale.

This conversation has been condensed and made more concise.

DARLENE KURTZLEISEN While many people have heard of Jane Roe, I would guess that considerably fewer are familiar with Norma McCorvey or have much knowledge of her. How would you characterize her to someone you don’t know well?

Joshua Prager: Norma was kind of the perfect person for me to tell the bigger story of abortion in America through because her life was really defined by a lot of the very same things that I think make abortion particularly fraught in America, particularly sex and religion and what she saw as the incompatibility or irreconcilability of those two things.

That is brought home in a very dramatic way when, first, her mother beats her when she comes out to her church and her parents. But Norma also travels across state boundaries with a little girl buddy from school. They check into a motel, are about 12 years old, and the cops are called. The girl claims that Norma tried inappropriate things with her, as Norma told me, and that Norma was then exiled to a school for “delinquent youth.” After attending several of these schools, she makes the decision to lead a normal life complete with a white picket fence. At age 16, she marries and immediately becomes pregnant. That may be the first of many, many falsehoods she tells when she subsequently claims that her spouse beat her.

She frequently recast herself as a victim rather than a wrongdoer. And she frequently spoke about the terrible things she supposedly endured but didn’t. She begs her mother to take the child, later claiming that her mother took the infant, proving that this is a lie once more, and then she gives the child up for adoption.

She is also a prostitute at this time and occasionally sleeps with guys while being gay and having affairs with women. She is a drug dealer. She conceives once more and gives that child up for adoption. After that, she becomes pregnant a third time, and that is when the Roe baby is born.

THE NPR POLITICS AUDIO BLOG DK: This book makes a significant point—McCorvey was a complicated individual in many different ways. I wish to focus in particular on her advocacy. Let’s begin by summarizing her past. She initially backed abortion rights, but then changed her mind and became an opponent. How did that all come about?

JP: That is a tragic story. In essence, Norma didn’t want to file a lawsuit. In fact, she was unaware of the definition of the term “plaintiff.” She desired to get pregnant. And the issue was apparent from the beginning because Linda Coffee and Sarah Weddington, the attorneys who needed her to represent their case, showed more concern for her as a plaintiff than as a client. They may have provided assistance for her to attempt an abortion. Sarah Weddington, who worked for an abortion referral network and had an abortion herself, However, McCorvey gave birth to the child instead while the case was still pending.

Norma wanted a place at the table when she entered the spotlight in the late 1980s. She then desired to work as an advocate. However, she didn’t discuss abortion in the same manner as “abortion-rights proponents,” who genuinely offended her. She wasn’t invited to any of their book parties, rallies, or marches. They would occasionally tell her the few words that she was permitted to speak while she was there. I think it’s understandable that she became so enraged over this.

And then, in 1995, she begins working at an abortion clinic in Texas. As is sometimes the case with opponents of abortion, they subsequently open up shop adjacent to the clinic, establishing what they refer to as a crisis pregnancy center. That man’s name was Flip Benham. He was an evangelist who served as the organization’s leader at the time, Operation Rescue, which opposed abortion rights.

He makes friends with Norma and ingratiates himself with her because a lot of the pro-choice “movement” is sort of pushing her away. He wants to kind of hug her and cuddle her close, but she swaps sides instead. The pro-life community in Texas’s top official described it this way: “The poster child leaped off the poster.” However, because they are also abusing her, Norma doesn’t feel at home on the pro-life side, just as she didn’t feel at home on the pro-choice side. One major issue is that they essentially tell her she can’t be gay and must deny her sexual orientation. And she suffers a great deal as a result. DK: You also make it apparent that she was frequently motivated by money, particularly near the end of her life, and she did so on occasion. How much did you think she was a believer vs an opportunist at any one time?

JP: It’s an excellent query. My book’s subtitle is “An American Story,” and there are many aspects of it that are specifically American. The incompatibility of sex and religion that grew here and contributed to many of the issues we face is not just a result of our puritanical heritage, as I previously said.

Additionally, McCorvey is being actually carried away to Hollywood by Gloria Allred, where she is learning to monetize her plaintiffship in a way that it is difficult to conceive would happen just about anywhere else. These issues go beyond the politicization of abortion. While the cameras are rolling, this evangelical minister baptizes her in a pool. He blow-dries his hair and whitens his teeth before she appears on ABC News.

On the other hand, she really did feel strongly about abortion. Yes, she would perform the tasks for which she was compensated. She was able to sustain herself because to this plaintiffship. She also swore loyalty to radicals on both sides. However, I can tell she had a cause to stand up for since she made the same statement at three very different moments in her life. For example, in her first interview, which she gave just days after Roe, her lawyers had largely forgotten about her and gone on. Through her attorney, Linda Coffee, a Baptist newsletter contacts McCorvey and inquires about her views on abortion. She then adds, “I tell you what. I firmly believe that abortion should be permitted, but only during the first trimester of pregnancy. Because if you continue, you risk killing a child.”

Then, in 1995, she publicly rejects Roe and joins the opposition. This is when it becomes fantastic. On Nightline, she is interviewed by Ted Koppel, and she repeats the same statement. She continues to say the same thing despite enraging her new companions in Operation Rescue.

She then tells me that towards the very end of her life. She whispered it to me a few days before from her hospital bed, and I was with her when she passed away. She genuinely thought that abortion should be legal up to that time. She effectively represented the majoritarian center ground in America in that regard as well. According to our polls, the majority of Americans hold that opinion.

DK: One noteworthy feature of this book is how much of it is set in Texas. Texas, of course, continues to be significant in discussions over abortion because of its six-week ban, which became law last year. Would you mind sharing your thoughts on why Texas plays such a significant role in the history of abortion in America?

JP: The greatest response I can offer is that a sizable number of women and girls in Texas consistently desire to be able to get abortions. That has to do with many other aspects, like class, as I have indicated, poverty, and access to healthcare. Additionally, a highly active pro-life movement is present at the same time. These two things are actually at odds with one another.

DK: The lives of the people you write about were greatly influenced by racism, homophobia, and misogyny. The continuation of this battle is then connected to those civil rights. You must not have been surprised when the Supreme Court rulings citing those other instances involving interracial marriage, contraception, and homosexual marriage came out.

JP: Actually, it didn’t surprise me at all. Despite Justice Samuel Alito’s best efforts to claim otherwise, it is obvious that this will have legal repercussions for the other instances you named.

The fact that Thomas came out and said that but omitted any mention of interracial marriage intrigued me as well. Naturally, he is wed to a white woman. And something that Justice Blackmun, the author of Roe, mentions in his preamble to Roe, is something that I referred to repeatedly throughout my book. According to him, one’s opinion of abortion is frequently influenced by their exposure to the harsh realities of human existence. In other words, if you are exposed to someone who has had an abortion, is currently experiencing one, or knows someone who has had one, you will likely be affected by that exposure.

He makes no mention of the fact that Sally, his own daughter, had an unintended pregnancy in college, which significantly changed the course of her life. In fact, Justice Powell, one of his fellow justices on the bench, tells his clerks an astounding story about his time as a pro-life attorney at a Virginia law office. One of the messengers at his company approaches him and says, “I took my fiancée to a Virginia facility that performs illegal abortions. I’m now wanted for manslaughter after she passed away.” And Powell’s thoughts were influenced by that twin tragedy.

I frequently consider where people stand, including Supreme Court judges. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that Justice Thomas would say what he said and not say what he did. DK: I want to end by asking you a significant question. What, in your opinion, does the tale of Norma McCorvey and her daughters—especially the Roe child, who is now an adult—illustrate about the current abortion debate? Beyond the obvious historical ties, why is this important?

Two things, JP. The first is quite sort of dramatic and sharp in black and white. Frequently, the story involves a class. We have such a divided nation right now. We already were, but as soon as I cross this state’s border, I am actually permitted to get an abortion. If I cross the state boundary there, I can’t get pregnant. And frequently, who is permitted to have an abortion depends on their socioeconomic status. And I believe Norma’s experience and the stories of her daughters shed light on one very crucial issue.

The other is the complexity of abortion, man. Each of these four women—McCorvey and her three daughters—had highly complex and occasionally ambiguous sentiments about abortion. By the way, all four of them supported abortion and their daughters still do.

Even the Roe baby, whose very existence was dependent upon abortion not being legal at the time, believes that it should be. And as a result, I do believe that our nation would benefit if people understood that rather than sort of just taking the attitude that “if you disagree with me, you are an awful human being.”