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The messy family saga and complicated characters behind Roe v. Wade

Norma McCorvey, right, the plaintiff in Roe v. Wade — the Supreme Court case that legalized abortion nationwide —  joins antiabortion demonstrators on Capitol Hill in 2009. Though she spoke against abortion, she also said: “I’m not pro-choice, I’m not pro-life. I’m pro-Norma.”
Norma McCorvey, right, the plaintiff in Roe v. Wade — the Supreme Court case that legalized abortion nationwide — joins antiabortion demonstrators on Capitol Hill in 2009. Though she spoke against abortion, she also said: “I’m not pro-choice, I’m not pro-life. I’m pro-Norma.” (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

Joshua Prager’s “The Family Roe: An American Story” couldn’t arrive at a more timely moment. On Sept. 1, a Texas law went into effect banning abortions as early as six weeks into pregnancy, with no exceptions for rape or incest. When the Supreme Court refused to intervene, President Biden warned of “unconstitutional chaos” from a law that deprives women of a right they have legally exercised since the court’s landmark ruling in Roe v. Wade nearly 50 years ago. Republican officials in at least seven other states are exploring ways to replicate the Texas law. Feminist and other grass-roots activists are mobilizing against these efforts through the courts, legislatures and acts of civil disobedience.

As the United States spirals into a crisis over access to abortion, Prager’s book provides a provocative look at Roe v. Wade, challenging us to rethink what we know about the case. He delves into the protagonists, the court decision and the social movements surrounding it. Through rigorous reporting and sensitive portrayals, Prager animates Roe’s leading and supporting figures and remakes our understanding of them. He elicits sympathy for many difficult personalities whose mostly messy lives were complicated by unintended pregnancies and by participation in the conflicted world of abortion services. By inviting us into their lives, Prager asks us to withhold judgment about their decisions and to reflect on the social and personal pressures underlying their actions. But he has no illusions that the debate over abortion will ever be anything but acrimonious. He quotes law professor Mary Ziegler, an expert on Roe’s history, as saying: “The abortion conflict is a tale of hopeless polarization, personal hatreds and political dysfunction.”

Prager focuses on four primary individuals and a host of others, interweaving in-depth biographical sketches to transform Roe from an abstract legal doctrine into an epic family saga. The chief figures are Norma McCorvey, the real-life Jane Roe; Linda Coffee, McCorvey’s original attorney in Texas; Mildred Jefferson, the first Black female graduate of Harvard Medical School, a founding member of the National Right to Life Committee and an ardent opponent of abortion; and Curtis Boyd, a physician who provided abortions before and after the Roe ruling. They are all Texans, and in varying forms Christianity influenced their views on sex, marriage, abortion and their careers. Prager wields a light touch here, neither decrying religion nor speculating on why Texas has been (and remains) ground zero in the legal struggle surrounding abortion in America.

The catalyst for Prager’s investigations was a curious realization: that McCorvey never got her sought-after abortion. She gave birth during the more than nine months it took for the Supreme Court to rule that laws banning abortion before viability were unconstitutional. After coming upon this time frame in an article in 2010, Prager set off on a quest to find that Roe child and McCorvey’s two previous biological children. From there, he explains, his “interest . . . quickly spread” to McCorvey herself, Roe v. Wade and “the whole of abortion in America.”

Prager’s research is deep and meticulous. He risked cold calls, probed archives and tax records, and gained the confidence, even friendship, of McCorvey’s three biological daughters and eventually McCorvey herself.

In McCorvey’s family, the history of unintended pregnancies is long and fraught. The traumas were influenced by the conflicting pressures of religion and sex and often bred painful family secrets. McCorvey’s grandmother Bertha had a rushed, if not shotgun, wedding after she became pregnant with McCorvey’s mother. McCorvey’s unmarried mother, Mary, gave birth to a child named Velma, who was given to grandmother Bertha to raise as her daughter. When McCorvey was born she was led to believe that Velma was her aunt when in fact she was her half sister. McCorvey gave her firstborn daughter, Melissa, to her mother, Mary, to raise. Mary eventually gained legal custody of Melissa, and only later did Melissa learn that McCorvey was her biological mother, having been led to believe that she was her sister. McCorvey’s other unplanned children, Jennifer and Shelley, the “Roe baby” born in 1970, were adopted and yearned to know the truth about their origins. McCorvey’s daughters hoped to break from their mother’s pattern and maintain stable families, but their lives have been varyingly touched by divorce, substance abuse and violence.

Prager captures how the stigma and shame of unintended pregnancy influence — and sometimes destroy — lives. The physician, Boyd, was in the 10th grade and deeply religious when he found out that a teenager in the grade below him had become pregnant. The captain of the football team, who was responsible for her pregnancy, became “big man on campus,” Boyd recalled. But the girl “was a sinner. She was condemned.” It troubled Boyd that for a woman, every act of sex risked ruination. “Boyd got to thinking about sex and religion and the law and what it was to be a woman,” Prager writes. As a doctor, Boyd embarked on a path to ensure that a pregnant woman could maintain her dignity and exercise autonomy over her life. He provided abortions before Roe made them legal and perfected the safety of later-term abortion techniques, which were eventually outlawed by “partial-birth abortion bans.”

In making Coffee one of the principals of his narrative, Prager restores her to her proper place in Roe v. Wade history. Coffee, the feminist lawyer mastermind behind Roe, was overshadowed by her co-counsel Sarah Weddington, who twice argued the case before the Supreme Court. Coffee was an introvert and not terribly personable. At her first meeting with McCorvey, Prager writes, “Coffee was intense, incapable of small talk, pale and unkempt besides. All at once, [McCorvey] was ill at ease beside her. She looked, said [McCorvey], ‘like she got out of bed and forgot to comb her hair.’ ” By contrast, Prager writes, “Weddington was confident. Her parents had raised her and her younger siblings to believe, she later recalled, that they ‘could do whatever they wanted.’ ” After Roe, Weddington served three terms in the Texas House of Representatives, was president of NARAL Pro-Choice America and was named an assistant to President Jimmy Carter. Coffee’s post-Roe life became a slide into obscurity. Her legal practice consisted mostly of bankruptcy cases; she was frequently at risk of losing her law license because of faulty record-keeping and even faced criminal fraud prosecutions.

A telling moment in the lives of the co-counsels came on the January day in 1973 when the Supreme Court ruled in Roe v. Wade. Weddington, who had won her state representative seat the previous November, was flooded with requests for interviews. The Associated Press reported that she was the lawyer “who submitted the class action suit that led to Monday’s ruling.” But that was Coffee, not Weddington. As Prager writes, “Neither [Weddington] nor Coffee would ever correct the record — Weddington happy to absorb the recognition of two, Coffee to go unrecognized.” Prager quotes Coffee as saying, “I don’t particularly care.”

Prager urges his reader to consider the context of his protagonists’ lives before leaping to judgments. The complicated figure of Jefferson, the Black Harvard Medical School graduate, offers a prime example. Prager shows how her early years in the segregated South drove her to succeed and how, among the liberal Bostonians, racism and misogyny still constrained her choices. Her personality was severe at times, and in her antiabortion advocacy she was absolutist, believing there was never a justification for terminating a pregnancy, even to save the life of the woman.

Jefferson was so concerned that a pregnancy would derail her path toward a career as a surgeon that she chose to be childless. She was so adamant that throughout her husband’s five-year courtship, she refused to have sex until they were married. “Always they slept in separate beds,” Prager writes of their years before marriage. “Her abstention was absolute.”

She wasn’t financially prudent in her own affairs or in the business of the organizations she presided over. She hoarded newspapers and other materials so oppressively that her husband moved out and ultimately ended the marriage. Her insistence on remaining childless led her to lie about why she chose that course, and in the process she presented an image of herself as a smart, ambitious, successful woman who opposed abortion. “Having chosen . . . not to bring a child into the world — even as she insisted that every other woman, once she’d conceived, do so — she told friends that she’d been unable to conceive,” Prager writes. Moreover, he adds, “childlessness was at odds with everything she publicly stood for: the power of self-determination, the insistence that every conception culminate in a birth, the assertion that propagation was the very purpose of woman — ‘the essence and reasons we exist as female human beings,’ ” as she said.

Prager’s depiction of Jefferson’s last years is freighted with questions: As she’s dying alone amid mountains of paper, are we to think that she brought this end upon herself or that she was a tragic victim of structural discrimination, or both?

Which brings us back to Norma McCorvey, who occupies center stage in Prager’s account. Her character and her life, as Prager portrays them, cause us to wince but also to feel for her. He describes her as having a “borderline personality [and] a tenth grade education.” He isn’t interested, however, in maligning her. He sees her as she is, as someone whose upbringing and circumstances imposed shortcomings on her. She rebelled as a teenager, discovered she was gay and was punished for it. Sent to a Catholic boarding school, she made up a story about being raped in a shower by a nun. Similarly, the unintended and unwanted pregnancy that turned her into the plaintiff Jane Roe was a result of ordinary, unprotected sex; this she later turned into a tale of gang rape.

An attention hound, McCorvey favored abortion rights only so long as the feminist movement attended to her with money, gratitude and respect. In time, feeling snubbed by elitist feminists (“I don’t have a Vassar education,” she quipped), McCorvey took up with Operation Rescue’s evangelical and Catholic abortion opponents, converting to their religions and their causes. When they demanded she renounce her homosexuality and reneged on their financial support, McCorvey turned against them, too. As she told the New York Daily News: “I’m not pro-choice, I’m not pro-life. I’m pro-Norma.”

In the end, Prager gives us neither heroes nor villains. He elicits our empathy toward almost everyone in his cast of characters. That’s no easy feat when our inclination is to see each person through our partisan eyes. Prager’s reportage destabilizes our righteousness, disarms our sense of outrage and offers us a breather, even as Roe v. Wade may be taking its last breaths.

The Family Roe

An American Story

By Joshua Prager

672 pp. $35