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The forgotten story of Jane Roe, who fought for and then against abortion rights

This April 26, 1989 file photo shows Norma McCorvey (L), known as "Jane Roe" in the 1973 landmark Roe vs Wade ruling, with attorney Gloria Allred (R) in front of the US Supreme Court building.
AFP via Getty Images
This April 26, 1989 file photo shows Norma McCorvey (L), known as "Jane Roe" in the 1973 landmark Roe vs Wade ruling, with attorney Gloria Allred (R) in front of the US Supreme Court building.

One of the biggest names in politics this year is a woman that many people know nothing about.

Since the overturn of Roe v. Wade, countless political candidates are invoking that 1973 Supreme Court case — but it can be easy to skim past that name without thinking about who Roe even was. Roe refers to Jane Roe, the pseudonym in this case for the woman who originally sought the abortion: Norma McCorvey.

For the latest installment of the NPR Politics Podcast Book Club, we interviewed Joshua Prager, author of The Family Roe. The book traces the history of American abortion politics through McCorvey's life story. That story is one of both genuine conviction and opportunism, of sex and drugs and politics and class and fame and religion — all of which combine to create, as Prager puts it, a "uniquely American" tale.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Danielle Kurtzleben: While a lot of people have heard the Jane Roe, I would imagine far fewer know the name Norma McCorvey or know much about her. How would you describe her to someone who is not well acquainted?

Joshua Prager: Norma was sort of the perfect person for me to tell the larger story of abortion in America through, because her life really was 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.

When she comes out to her church [and] her parents, that is driven home in very dramatic fashion when first of all, her mother beats her. But also, Norma goes across state lines with a friend of hers from school, a young girl. They're about 12 years old, they check into a motel, the police are called. The girl alleges, as Norma said to me, that Norma tried inappropriate things with her, and Norma's then sent away to a school for "delinquent children." She bounces through these schools, and she decides she's going to have a regular life with the white picket fence and all that. She gets married at 16 and gets pregnant right away. She later alleges that her husband beat her; that's maybe the first of many, many lies.

She often re-imagined herself as not a sinner, but a victim. And she often was telling about these sort of horrible things she suffered, which she didn't suffer. She begs her mother to take the child and later says her mother kidnapped the child — so it's, again, another lie — and places that child for adoption.

Then, even though she's gay and is having affairs with women, she's also a prostitute at this time [and] is occasionally sleeping with men. She's selling drugs. She gets pregnant again, places that child for adoption. Then she gets pregnant a third time, and that is the child that that becomes the Roe baby.

DK: One important thing you've gotten at in this book is that McCorvey was a complicated person in all sorts of ways. I want to talk especially about her activism. Let's start by just outlining her history. She was a supporter of abortion rights, but then later in her life, an opponent of abortion rights. How did all of that happen?

JP: That's a very sad story. Basically, Norma did not want to become a plaintiff. She actually didn't even know what the word "plaintiff" meant. She wanted an abortion. And the problem right from the start was that the lawyers who needed her to represent their case [Linda Coffee and Sarah Weddington] cared more for her as a plaintiff than as a client. They could have helped her to try to have an abortion. Sarah Weddington herself had had an abortion and worked for an abortion referral network. [However, McCorvey instead had the child while the case went forward.]

And when Norma steps into the spotlight in the late 1980s, she wanted a seat at the table. She wanted, at that point, to become an advocate. But she didn't speak about abortion the way that [abortion-rights advocates] did, and they really alienated her. They didn't invite her to their book parties or their protests or their marches. And every now and then when she was there, they would say to her the few words that it was okay for her to speak. She got very angry about this — understandably, I think.

And then in 1995, she's working at an abortion clinic in Texas, and as is the way often of people who oppose abortion, they set up shop right next to an abortion clinic, setting up what they call a crisis pregnancy center. The man there was named Flip Benham. He was an evangelical minister who was actually the head then of [anti-abortion-rights organization] Operation Rescue.

He ingratiates himself to Norma, he befriends her as much of the pro-choice [movement] is sort of pushing her away. He wants to sort of hug her and hold her close, and she then decides to flip — she switches sides. As one of the heads of the pro-life community put it in Texas, "the poster child jumped off the poster." But just as Norma didn't feel at home on the pro-choice side, she doesn't feel at home on the pro-life side, because they're exploiting her, too. And one big, big, big problem is that they basically tell her that she can't be gay — she has to renounce her homosexuality. And this causes her untold grief and suffering.

DK: But also, you make it clear, and she made it clear at times, that she was often driven by money, especially towards the end of her life. What was your sense of how much she was an opportunist versus a believer at any given point?

JP: It's a great question. So the name of the subtitle of my book is "An American Story," and there are so many things about this that are uniquely American. It's not only the fact that we had these puritanical roots that made, as I mentioned earlier, the incompatibility of sex and religion grow here and lead to a lot of the problems we have.

And it's not just the politicization of abortion, but it's also, again, [McCorvey's] being whisked off literally to Hollywood by Gloria Allred, and she's learning to monetize her plaintiffship in a way that it's hard to imagine would take place just about anywhere else. This evangelical minister is baptizing her in a pool while the cameras roll — he blow-dries his hair and dyes his teeth white, and then she's on ABC News and all that — it's very American.

By the same token, she did actually have conviction when it came to abortion. She would do what she was paid to do, absolutely. She was able to wring a living out of this plaintiffship. And she pledged allegiance to extremes on both sides. But I know that she had something she believed in, because she said the same thing at three very different points in her life: in the first ever interview she gave, it was days after Roe, and her lawyers had sort of forgotten about her and moved along. A Baptist newsletter approaches her through her lawyer, Linda Coffee, and asks [McCorvey] her thoughts on abortion. And she says, "You know what? I now feel very strongly that abortion ought to be legal, but only through the first trimester of pregnancy. Because after that, you might be killing a baby."

Now, what's amazing is then fast-forward to 1995, when she publicly renounces Roe and switches over to the other side. Well, she's interviewed by Ted Koppel on Nightline, and she says that same thing again. Even though she's infuriating her new friends in Operation Rescue, she says the exact same thing.

And then at the very end of her life, she says that to me. I was with her, actually, when she passed away, and she said it to me a few days before that from her hospital bed. She really did believe that abortion ought to be legal, but only to that point. And in that way, it was another way that she really represented the majoritarian middle ground in America. That's what our polls show us that most Americans believe.

DK: One notable thing about this book is so much of it takes place in Texas. And Texas, of course, remains important in conversations about abortion because of its six-week ban that went into effect last year. I'm wondering if you have thoughts on why Texas is so central to the story of abortion in America.

JP: The best answer I can give is that you have a large group of girls and women in Texas who invariably want to be able to have abortions. That has to do with various things, including class, as I mentioned earlier, and poverty and access to health care. And then you also have, at the same time, a very robust pro-life community. And so these two things are really in conflict.

DK: Racism, homophobia, and misogyny did so much to shape the lives of the people you write about. And then those civil rights are tied to this fight going forward. When you saw the Supreme Court opinions come out that referenced those other cases having to do with gay marriage and contraception and interracial marriage, that must not have surprised you, then.

JP: It didn't surprise me actually, at all. No matter how much [Justice Samuel] Alito wants to say that this won't have now legal ramifications on the other cases you mentioned, of course they will.

I found it interesting, too, that Thomas came out and said that, but did not mention sort of interracial marriage. He, of course, is married to a white woman. And one of the things that I turned to over and over and over again in my book is something that Justice Blackmun himself, the author of Roe, notes in his preamble to Roe. He says that one's opinion of abortion is often determined by their exposure to the raw edges of human existence — basically that if you are exposed to a person who has an abortion or who feels or who knew someone who had an abortion, then you will be moved by that exposure.

He doesn't mention that his own daughter, Sally, had an unwanted pregnancy in college, which really sort of redirected her life. And in fact, one of his fellow justices on the bench, Justice Powell, later confides to his clerks an amazing story, that he was a pro-life lawyer at a law firm in Virginia when one of the messengers at his firm comes to him and says, "I brought my girlfriend to an illegal abortion provider here in Virginia. She died, and now I'm wanted for manslaughter." And that double tragedy shaped Powell's thinking.

I often look at where human beings stand — even justices of the Supreme Court. So, no shock that Justice Thomas would say what he did and not say what he didn't say.

DK: I want to wrap up to ask you quite a big question. What do you think the story of Norma McCorvey and her daughters, especially the Roe baby, who is an adult now — what does that story illuminate about the fight over abortion today? Why is this relevant, beyond the obvious historical connections?

JP: Two things. The first is very sort of pointedly, dramatically in black and white terms. It's often it's a story about class. Right now we are such a divided country. We already were, but now literally, I step on this side of this of this state line, I'm allowed to have an abortion. I step on that side of the state line, I'm not to have an abortion. And often it is class that is determining who can and cannot have an abortion. And that is one very important thing that I think Norma's story and the stories of her daughters bring to light.

The other is that, man, abortion is complicated. All four of these women [McCorvey and her three daughters] in their own ways had very nuanced and sort of ambiguous feelings about abortion. All four of them, by the way, were pro-choice and are pro-choice — the daughters, even.

Even the Roe baby, whose very existence owed to the unavailability of abortion at that time, feels that abortion ought to be legal. And so I do think our country would be better served if people recognized that and did not sort of just take the approach that "if you disagree with me, you are a horrible human being."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Danielle Kurtzleben is a political correspondent assigned to NPR's Washington Desk. She appears on NPR shows, writes for the web, and is a regular on The NPR Politics Podcast. She is covering the 2020 presidential election, with particular focuses on on economic policy and gender politics.