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The Epic Life of the Woman Behind Roe v. Wade


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An American Story
By Joshua Prager

Jane Roe is why Americans gained a right to abortion, but she never had one. She called the abortions she helped undam a "holocaust," but she once texted her daughter Melissa, "I should had abort you." She worked in an abortion clinic, but she also worked for the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue. She told the world haunting stories about a life of rapes and gunfire and abuse, but she later revealed that she had made much of it up.

In the journalist Joshua Prager's ardently reported and painfully timely epic, "The Family Roe," Jane Roe is both heroine and villain - and a paragon of human complexity. If you like your stories the way too many of us now do - pat, with the narrative reverse-engineered to validate your priors - this book is not for you. But it is if you want an honest glimpse into the American soul, into the foul and sometimes fruitful marriage of activism and commerce, into the ways in which people can be and believe contradictory things, into the inner and outer lives of women squelched and tossed by reproductive tyranny.

In popular lore, Jane Roe is what E. M. Forster called a "flat character," "constructed round a single idea or quality" - in her case, the brave woman who won abortion rights for American women. But the name Roe was a pseudonym, and the woman behind it, Norma McCorvey, was what Forster called a "round character." Only round characters, he suggested, "are fit to perform tragically for any length of time and can move us to any feelings except humor and appropriateness."

Like the ancient geographers, Prager sets out to demonstrate the roundness of what many thought flat. To do so, he doesn't simply focus on McCorvey, who died in 2017, but goes back several generations into her family history and then forward into the lives of her three daughters, amassing a heart-wrenching corpus of evidence of how women's lives "are redirected by unwanted pregnancy." Without reproductive sovereignty, women are forced to abandon children and move cities, all because they once had sex. Many women die. A far greater number lose the power to sculpt their futures.

A world without abortion is a world of dread and chaos, and into this world Norma McCorvey was born. She grew up in a family in which devotion to God vied with devotion to sex and drink. She developed her mother's wildness, which didn't stop her mother from beating her mercilessly. She realized she was a lesbian and was harassed by her parents and the police. She drifted in and out of schools, in and out of bars, in and out of relationships with women and men. By 17, she was pregnant, out of an impetuous marriage and back at home.

McCorvey delivered a daughter, Melissa, and gave her up to her own mother. She resumed her life of bartending and drinking, of selling drugs and sex. Along the way, she had another child and gave her up for adoption. Then, in 1969, she got pregnant a third time. Abortion was illegal in Texas, where she lived - thanks to an exceedingly restrictive new law, it is virtually illegal again there now - though legal in a few other states. But she couldn't afford a local back-alley abortion, nor the travel costs of obtaining a legal one.

Fatefully, she came to the attention of lawyers looking for a plaintiff for a big case. These eager lawyers turned Norma McCorvey into Jane Roe, a process that involved anonymizing and manipulation. It began with a lie about her reason for wanting an abortion and continued with a possible violation of bar association ethics: doing what was best for the cause instead of for the client. While it would have been easy enough for the lawyers to try to help McCorvey secure an abortion somewhere, they had an interest in her not aborting to keep the case going. If McCorvey soon turned hostile to Roe, it was partly because she had sacrificed her own chance to get an abortion for a shot at gaining the right for everyone else.

"Once filed, Roe v. Wade no longer needed its plaintiff," Prager writes. "And Jane Roe and Norma McCorvey had parted ways." Two and a half years after that pregnancy, with her baby born and adopted, Roe won the right to abortion for every American woman. Six years after the historic 1973 ruling, abortions had doubled to 1.5 million per year, nearly half the number of live births. It was, the author Leslie Reagan wrote, "an improvement in maternal mortality that ranks with the invention of antisepsis and antibiotics." Women didn't merely gain a right but also the chance to "shape their lives around that right," as a law clerk to Justice David Souter wrote in 1991.

In the shadows of Roe's triumph lurked McCorvey. Prager writes that in the nearly three years between signing an affidavit for her lawyers and their victory, she never heard from them. But soon she seized on what she called "my law" to build a lucrative personal brand, complete with content deals and speaking engagements.

The Epic Life of the Woman Behind Roe v. Wade

As she told the world her story, she had a tendency toward fiction. A sexual liaison with a woman later revealed to be consensual was cast as rape; giving up her child to her mother was cast as a kidnapping; domestic violence was made up. McCorvey, Prager says, "had reimagined herself as not a sinner but a victim" - an understandable consequence of the persecution she had known as a gay child in a religious home.

If she used the abortion rights cause, it used her, too. Prager quotes movement memos about McCorvey's value in getting the message out, even as leading activists sneered at her and excluded her from their events. She was low-rent for them - "untruthful, uneducated, unstable, unscripted," as Prager puts it - and she never felt welcomed among their ranks.

This being, as the subtitle says, "an American story," various other players, idealists and grifters cross the stage. The lawyer Gloria Allred, a feminist power broker who would later face scrutiny for negotiating nondisclosure agreements for victims of sexual misconduct, becomes McCorvey's consigliere. The National Enquirer offers to connect her to the daughter she had wanted to abort - in exchange for the scoop!

With the Roe precedent now hanging by a thread, it can be uncomfortable to encounter all this honesty about its makings. Does telling the truth about this story endanger the cause? In other landmark cases, there were notable efforts to recruit " perfect plaintiffs " - Mildred Loving, Jim Obergefell, Edith Windsor. Roe was not one of them. But there is something meaningful in that. McCorvey was in need of constitutionally protected bodily autonomy not because you admire her life but because you might not. Rights were conceived precisely because some people will never win over a majority of their fellow citizens, and they, too, deserve freedom.

In another way as well, McCorvey is an awkward protagonist for the abortion rights cause: She renounced it. One day she was working in an abortion clinic in Dallas. The next, she was befriending an anti-abortion religious activist who had rented an office right beside her clinic. Then she was baptized by him and born again, and soon she became an anti-abortion activist herself, giving the speeches, doing TV. Many factors abetted the conversion. McCorvey had never been treated well by "a pro-choice world that would always care more for her pseudonym than for her," Prager writes. She was restless, eternally seeking thrills. She had always been more squeamish about abortion than was convenient to let on.

"She personified the abortion debate," an associate of McCorvey's tells Prager, "complicated and conflicted about her own beliefs as many of us are." As a recent Pew survey found, "about six-in-10 U.S. adults do not take an absolutist position on abortion," with minorities of 25 percent saying abortion should be legal in all cases and 13 percent saying it should be illegal in all cases, and most others falling somewhere in between. Prager's portrait of McCorvey is a reminder that on this and other public questions, most people do not think in the neat categories of scholars and pundits - and are more susceptible to suasion if you try to grasp, and speak to, their internal conflicts.

Prager's scope is giant, and, like any gathering of family, sometimes it's too much. The stories are beautifully rendered, but the mind loses track of characters. No branch of the family tree bores Prager. If one of McCorvey's daughters has a first kiss, you'll learn the boy's name (Kevin). If a tabloid pays a woman to help McCorvey find her daughter, you're going to learn how that finder's mother died (leukemia).

It's at once impressive and excessive, and, while all the detail slows the narrative, I also understand it. For it is in the sheer volume of disparate stories that you appreciate the colossal cost of tying women for decades to the consequences of encounters that might have lasted a half-hour (at best) and may or may not have been meaningfully chosen. Another writer might not have told us that, when McCorvey had an unplanned pregnancy in 1964, she was perpetuating a family tradition: Her mother and grandmother had unplanned pregnancies in 1940 and 1922, both recounted here.

I also suspect Prager gave us more, not less, because of the present discourse about who gets to tell what stories. He began working on this book a decade ago. Since then, the notion that a man might be the right person to chronicle the women behind Roe has fallen even further out of step with the times. In this debate, some say outsiders to a community - in this case, a man - should never tell a story like this. Others say anyone can tell any story they want. I empathize with elements of both claims, and both also unsettle me. Perhaps my own instinct is: If you do the work, you can tell the story.

Lived experience is vital, full of information, and we need more writing from its depths. But there is also a kind of reporting across borders, of loving and indefatigable attentiveness to the stories people unlike you tell you, that we must encourage. What Prager is attempting is risky. He is complicating the memory of a woman many readers will want flatly to lionize, in the service of making a sweeping, granular, century-deep case for women's sovereignty over themselves. From my admitted distance, it seems as valiant an effort as someone could make to understand from without, an effort to praise - and, on this issue, in this moment, an effort more men must make.