Two women stand in front of the Supreme Court building holding a sign that reads, "Keep Abortion Legal."

The Family Roe and the Messy Reality of the Abortion “Jane Roe” Didn’t Get

I almost didn’t read The Family Roe: An American Story by Joshua Prager. When I saw the premise – a biography of Norma McCorvey, the “Jane Roe” of Roe v. Wade, and her family – I wasn’t immediately sure why I should care. I study the broad-scale social history of reproductive health and I had mostly considered plaintiffs to be incidental to Supreme Court cases, convenient (or as Prager demonstrates, not-so-convenient) examples of a common conflict that needs legal resolution. It was the principle of a case, and the impact of the decision on millions of lives, that mattered, not the specific individuals called to be stand-ins for everywoman.

But as Prager shows, a deep dive into the life of an ordinary person thrust into an extraordinary public matter can be immensely rewarding, humbling, and thought-provoking.

The power of Prager’s approach is that he juxtaposes dominant narratives about motherhood, women’s autonomy, and the morality of abortion with the messy weirdness of ordinary people’s private lives. At the heart of the book is Norma, whose life did not follow any culturally recognized script. She was a lesbian who enjoyed partying and lots of sex and slept with men sometimes. She never used contraception, so she had given up three children for adoption by the time she had her tubes tied at age 23 at the behest of her partner, Connie Gonzalez. After serving as the plaintiff in Roe v. Wade, she made her living for years as a pro-choice activist, before abruptly becoming a pro-life activist, following the meager money and occasional fame in abortion activism to the other side, and dragging Connie with her.

Like many Americans, Norma’s views on abortion were ambivalent and contradictory. Throughout decades of vocal pro-choice and pro-life activism she privately maintained the view that abortion should be legal, but only in the first trimester. And yet the abortion at the center of the court case – an abortion she sought but failed to obtain – would have taken place around 20 or so weeks of gestation. She believed that abortions were often necessary, but she still felt they were sinful.

Some months after the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, pro-choice leaders tried to include the legal team and Norma herself in activism. Norma would need to be educated in middle-class feminist ways of speaking about abortion rights. Norma, though, was not so open to being domesticated. She liked to smoke and drink and use her own words. She didn’t like to be told to show up on time for interviews, or that she couldn’t use vodka to steady her nerves. For their part, pro-choice leaders wanted a symbol, not a person. Norma needed to mouth the correct words or be quiet. But Norma didn’t entirely believe the pro-choice narrative. And she sounded like a working-class Arcadian from the South, not a northeasterner with a private college education.

In 1995, after Norma began working as a receptionist at an abortion clinic in Dallas, the radical pro-life activist organization Operation Rescue opened a crisis pregnancy center next door. The leader, minister Philip Benham, targeted Norma for conversion.

Benham and his co-workers gently wooed Norma. And Norma quickly found that Benham, from a rough background himself, was in many ways more congenial than her middle-class colleagues at the abortion clinic. He was happy to share a smoke in the parking lot and bring Norma to a bar for a drink after spending a day harassing the clinic staff and patients. He understood Norma. She didn’t feel condescended to, the way she often felt on the pro-choice side. He offered respect for her working-class sensibilities, along with financial support, affection, attention, and another chance at the spotlight. So Norma flipped allegiances.

The cover image for The Family Roe, featuring a white background and an image of a long tear down the center.
Cover image courtesy W. W. Norton.

But if Norma had strained to meet the cultural requirements of the pro-choice activists, the narratives of pro-life activists were even more constricting. They drew upon cultural tropes that were familiar to Norma, whose parents were Pentecostals-turned-Jehovah’s Witnesses. But they demanded that she reform her identity in fundamental ways. When they could not convince Norma to leave Connie, they demanded they at least stop having sex, and Norma acquiesced. While the pro-choice leaders hadn’t exactly trumpeted or championed Norma’s sexuality, they had not demanded that she abandon it, either. And while Catholic pro-life leaders tolerated Norma’s drinking, the Evangelicals who gave her sustenance also tried to demand she live “clean,” without sex, substances, or swearing. Norma was to empty herself and become a vessel for one thing: pro-life activism.

Over the decades Norma made her living and grabbed the spotlight by telling her life story, first in a pro-choice mode, and later as a born again Christian and pro-life advocate. The story she told, though, bore little resemblance to reality. In her invented story, the sex that led to her pregnancies was rape. In reality, it had been a part of enjoyable affairs, as Norma reveled in her sexuality with many partners of both sexes. In her pretend narrative, her mother, rather than raising Norma’s first daughter after Norma abandoned the child, had kidnapped her and insisted upon the adoption. Norma told the stories her audiences on both sides of the abortion debate understood to be exculpatory: that her unwanted pregnancies were not her fault; that anti-abortion laws had forced her to carry a rapist’s child; that she loved her children like a good mother despite the circumstances. It seemed to Norma and her ghost writers that her real life could not be justified. The mainstream narratives about motherhood and childbearing, on either side of the aisle, had no place for someone like Norma.

In addition to Norma, Prager profiles the messy and contradictory lives of significant activists on both sides of the abortion debate, alternating among biographies to fill out the landscape of abortion politics since Roe. Readers meet members of the Roe “family” from both sides: prominent pro-life activist Mildred Jefferson, the first Black woman doctor to graduate from Harvard Medical School, stymied in her surgical career by racism, issuing pro-life demands that every conceived child be born yet childless by choice herself, her marriage eventually undone by her pathological hoarding. Curtis Boyd, who gave up his marriage and home to dedicate his life to abortion provision. The self-effacing Linda Coffee, one of the pair of lawyers who litigated Roe v. Wade, a lesbian in rural, conservative Texas, ignored by the pro-choice movement and broken by a misbegotten fraud indictment. Frank Pavone, founder of Priests for Life, who repeatedly defied the Catholic hierarchy in his grotesque anti-abortion tactics. All flawed, complex characters, with complicated and even tragic relationships to the national movements to which they dedicated their lives.

The final strand of the book deals with Norma’s three daughters. Prager began his research hunting for the “Roe baby,” and eventually located all of Norma’s daughters and facilitated their meeting. As an academic researcher, I am uncomfortable with this matchmaking for sensitive relationships. While Prager extensively quotes the daughters as they draw from the common cultural narrative of the importance of connecting with birth parents and siblings, he is simultaneously unsparing in showing the chaos and stress that Norma brought to their lives, allowing readers to evaluate for themselves the trope of the birth mother-child reunion.

Prager’s research to peel away Norma’s imaginary narratives is an important contribution, one that required years of intensive investigative journalism, locating and interviewing a huge number of Norma’s relatives, friends, acquaintances, and former lovers. It was work that previous researchers, most of them pro-choice activists in addition to their academic roles, had not done. When I read the acknowledgments and realized that Prager lived nearby and was an independent researcher like me, I contacted him, and he graciously hosted me for coffee under heat lamps in his backyard. As we chatted about his process, he told me about being blown off repeatedly by several preeminent scholars who study abortion politics. He was looking for citations for claims they made that he had not been able to validate; they ignored him. We talked about how in academic research, citation chains sometimes turn out to be anchored in sand, with an original source that was, in fact, speculative or mistaken. Did these prominent scholars brush him off because abortion is a touchy topic and Prager did not have an institutional affiliation in his email signature? Or are those of us in the pro-choice movement sometimes too invested in our narratives to step back and critically examine them when the people whose lives we claim to represent are contrary subjects and uncooperative narrators?

The Family Roe interrogates some of the most central and highly fraught narratives about childbearing and motherhood in American culture. With a novelist’s grace, Prager shows how the narratives we use to justify our personal decisions and our politics too often fail to make room for our own and others’ unresolved ambivalence, messy realities, and human frailty.

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2 Comments

Rorry Zahourek

Very interesting and useful review about a current and pressing issue for our country and for all women.
Thank you

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