Who Was the Real Jane Roe? with Joshua Prager
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Keith Simon: You've heard the arguments for the pro- choice and pro- life side in the abortion debate, but you probably don't know the story of the people involved in the debate. Jane Roe was the pseudonym of Norma McCorvey, the woman behind the historic Roe versus Wade Supreme Court decision that found a constitutional right to abortion. Ironically, Norma had three daughters and no abortions. Henry Blackmun was the Supreme Court justice that wrote the famous opinion, but did you know that he was appointed by a Republican president? Mildred Jefferson was the driving force behind the National Right to Life Committee. In the 1970s. She was the first black woman accepted to Harvard Medical School but, due to racism and sexism, was unable to find a job in her field of training. Sarah Weddington was lead legal counsel for Jane Rowe. She had traveled to Mexico to have an abortion, but was unwilling to help her client, Norma McCorvey, obtain one. Flip Benham was the pro- life pastor who led Norma to become a Christian. Years before Flip became a Christian he pressured his wife to have an abortion. She refused and gave birth to twin boys. I want to go behind the moral, theological and philosophical arguments and get to know the people involved in one of the most contentious moral debates in modern America. We have a great guide in Joshua Prager. He's the author of The Family Roe: An American Story, which was published last fall. Joshua knew Norma, and all three of her daughters. He had unparalleled access to the participants in this crazy story. Joshua Prager, welcome to Truth Over Tribe.
Joshua Prager: Thank you for having me.
Keith Simon: You spent 10 plus years researching and writing The Family Roe: An American Story, and I say that partly to let people know how well researched this book is. You've done your work, you've chased down every lead and it makes a great read. And I say partly, because when you started researching this book 10 plus years ago, you didn't know that your book was going to be released at such a significant moment in the national debate about abortion so, this isn't one of those books that was rushed to market to take advantage of current events. How did you get involved in this story? What caused you to pick up this topic and run with it?
Joshua Prager: Yeah, I'll answer your question. I'll first just say it's timeliness is a complete shock to me. I started in 2010, I had this idea. So president Obama was just beginning his presidency, Roe did not at all seem like it was going to be a hot button issue. Obviously it was already polarized, but it didn't seem like it was going to be before our Supreme Court. What happened was, I was in France for a year, I was sitting on a couch in someone's house, reading an article about gay marriage in the magazine, The New Yorker. And it mentioned in passing that sometimes a plaintiff for any given movement is good for that movement and sometimes she isn't. And in the latter category, they mentioned Norma McCorvey, who was Jane Rowe and who had famously switched sides in this. So she was a disservice suddenly to people on the pro- choice side. And I'll just mention right up front, I use the terms pro- choice and pro- life, I believe in allowing people to call themselves what they wish to be called. Anyway, it then mentioned, I think parenthetically, that she'd not had the abortion she sought and this big light bulb went off in my head. I said," Wow, that's crazy. That means that I'd always assumed that the woman who had won the legal right to have an abortion in this country had had one. And if she hadn't had one, and I read that she hadn't, and that she'd placed that child for adoption, that meant," I said to myself," somewhere, there is a man or a woman who at that point was 40 years old whose conception led to Roe v. Wade." And that struck me as a remarkable thing. And I said to myself, I bet he or she knows who they are, meaning who they'd been born to. And that it would be a very fascinating thing to find them and talk to them about that. And I wanted to find them. It took me about a year. I had a few false starts, and eventually I found my way to Norma, Jane Roe's former partner. Norma was gay. We could talk about it, but she had to renounce her homosexuality when she became a born again Christian, but she was gay. And her partner of many years was a woman named Connie Gonzalez. And when I found Connie in Texas, she was an older woman, had had a stroke, she was living with her caretaker, her niece. And she told me that her house was about to be foreclosed on. And then she told me that Norma's private papers were in the garage and about to be thrown out. And I said, please don't throw those out. Can I have them? She gave me the papers. I later asked Norma if she wanted them, she didn't, she sold them to me. And those papers are now in a research library in Harvard. And those papers enabled me to find the Roe baby. And I was off and running.
Keith Simon: And you were the person who discovered who the Roe baby was that other people had probably researched and looked for this person, but you found them and, with their cooperation, brought them to the public's attention. Now we'll get into all that in just a moment, but I'd love to start back a little bit and just compare and contrast where our country is now with the issue of abortion versus where it was in 1973 when the decision by the court was made. We know that this draft opinion by Justice Alito was leaked and then confirmed by Justice Roberts to be authentic. But as we have this conversation, we don't know how the court is going to rule so, by the time people hear this, maybe we'll already know how the court ruled. But as of right now, when we're talking, we don't know. What we do know is that the leaked opinion, the draft at least, led to a lot of celebration by some, and a lot of condemnation by others, including protests at the court and at the justices private residences. So was abortion as divisive an issue in 1973 as it is today?
Joshua Prager: Not at all. And I think that's maybe the single most important point. Abortion is so polarized right now, our country is so polarized and abortion is really the most charged issue in our country. And I look back at this, I came to this, I didn't know much at all about Roe v. Wade. I majored in music theory in college, I didn't know I was interested in human beings, I'm a journalist and as I say, my interest in the Roe baby led me into this thing. But then I started looking into it. It was barely politicized in 1973. So, to give just a few examples, Ronald Reagan was pro- choice, he had been the governor of California, he'd signed into law a very liberal abortion law in 1967 and when he did so, it had broad bipartisan support. George Bush was pro- choice. A lot of people on the right, conservatives, felt that they had concerns over overpopulation and this was one of the things that led them to be pro- choice. Similarly, the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest body of evangelical Christians in this country, they were pro- choice up until about 1980. I didn't know that. On the other side you had many of the leading Democrats were pro- life. Senator Ted Kennedy was pro- life, he said that abortion was an affront to his beliefs as a Catholic. Dick inaudible, Al Gore, the Reverend Jesse Jackson, who felt that abortion was particularly scourge in the black community. They were all pro- life. So it wasn't yet a partisan issue. Similarly, when you read the opinion of the court in 1973, which was written by Justice Blackmun, the justice mentions there that a lot of times, he says, people's opinions of abortion are formed by their exposure to it. He says, exposure to what he calls the raw edges of human existence. He's saying it isn't about politics, it isn't about religion, it's about your personal brushes with this issue. He doesn't mention there that he had been a doctor at the Mayo Clinic and had seen a lot of women hospitalized in Minnesota as a result of illegal abortion. He doesn't mention that his own daughter, Sally, had become unhappily pregnant in college just a few years before and her life had been rebooted by that. It was a very, very different time and yes, fast forward to where we are today, and there are reasons for that. It becomes politicized by people on both sides of the issue to be perfectly honest. But yes, it was a very different thing than it is today.
Keith Simon: Yeah. I want to unpack some of that stuff because I think it's all really interesting. At every confirmation of a Supreme Court justice in our day, abortion is a central issue. I mean, every justice is asked about it and every justice will avoid answering the question and they keep getting asked about it. Every Senator is looking for some angle to try to get the justice to reveal their position, but that hasn't always been the case, has it? This wasn't an issue in Supreme Court confirmation hearings back in the seventies.
Joshua Prager: You're right. What's amazing is the first justice, the first confirmation hearing for a would- be justice after Roe was 1975, 2 years later, John Paul Stevens. He's not even asked his opinion of Roe v. Wade.
Keith Simon: It's hard to imagine.
Joshua Prager: Yeah, it is amazing. And now, as you're saying exactly one journalist, David Kaplan said that those hearings are now simply proxies on Roe. It's all about Roe. And it's a charade because the justices have to pretend that they've given it basically no thought and it's ludicrous. It's become really a game. And Roe is always the thing that changes everything. So it was really the Democrats that first anyway, poisoned the Senate confirmation hearings. It happens in 1987, when would- be Justice Robert Bork is nominated by Ronald Reagan and he had come out very strongly against Roe. And the very day that he's put forward by Reagan, Senator Kennedy, having been about- face on the issue, he writes something saying that basically in Robert Bork's America women will be stuck going to back alley butchers for abortions. And this really sabotages his nomination and the Senate confirmation hearing process is never the same again.
Keith Simon: I think most people tend to think that the way it is now is the way it always was, and that's just not true. There's a story here that you tell about how this country has evolved on this issue. And Justice Bork made the mistake of being honest, he was very forthright with his views and he set himself up, opened himself up to be attacked by Senator Kennedy. But now President Biden was a Senator back in those hearings and was on Senator Kennedy's team and all of that. And you have a line in your book by Joe Nocera who was a columnist for The New York Times and he was reflecting on the Bork hearing and said it was the beginning of the end of civil discourse. So, do I have it right that back in 1973, when the Supreme Court made this decision, eight of the nine justices were Republican appointees?
Joshua Prager: I believe eight of the nine, that was in 1992, the last time Roe was threatened, that was in the Casey case, but you're 100% right that Blackmun was appointed by Nixon. And in fact, one of his fellow Nixon appointees also Justice Powell had also come out pro- choice. And the reason he did was also an unknown story, where he had been working as a lawyer at a Virginia law firm and a young messenger at the firm, a messenger boy, comes to him this is pre- Roe, and says to him," You know what, Mr. Powell, I brought my girlfriend to get an abortion. She died and I'm now wanted for manslaughter." And that experience changes Justice Powell's thinking on the issue and it goes to the heart of my book. I write, my epigraph is from Moby Dick and it says," See how elastic our stiff prejudices grow when love comes to bend them." That basically on either side, no matter where you stand on this issue, if you know someone from the other side and you come to care about them, you're going to start to think about this differently. And that was my whole approach. I tried to humanize the issue and I have people on both sides of the issue here, who you really come to root for, even if you disagree with that.
Keith Simon: Yeah, I think that's a great way of saying it. You do humanize the issue and you do it by telling the story of Norma McCorvey. And I want to get to that in just one second, but do you have any insight for us about how abortion became partisan? In other words, how it became Republican Democrat, because you gave us some big names who switched their position. And it seems like somewhere along the line, this became a Democrat issue and Republicans were pro- life, Democrats pro- choice. It's hard to find pro- choice Republicans now, or even harder to find pro- life Democrats. There are hardly none in elected office. How did that happen?
Joshua Prager: Here's what happens. So of course, as with everything else, it depends who you ask, but I'm a straight shooter and I separate fact from fiction. Here's what happens. Yes, it had started to become politicized a little bit, just a little bit before Roe. To give give one example, president Nixon in 1971 was basically pro- choice. He believed in subsidizing abortions at military hospitals, but one of his advisors, Pat Buchanan, comes to him and says," You know what, Mr President, there are votes to be won here among left- leaning Catholics if you come out against abortion." We have that in a memo, president Nixon about- faces. And that obviously is a political thing to do, this is pre- Roe. The majority of this though happens afterwards and it really can be traced, in my opinion, to 1976. Mildred Jefferson was a brilliant woman, the first black woman to graduate from Harvard Medical School. And she becomes the head of the National Right to Life Committee, the largest pro- life organization in America at that time. As an aside, it's very important to know she's looked at as a Saint in that community, she left the heights of medicine to go focus on the unborn. But the truth of the matter is a little more complicated. I found that FBI file because, on her, Nixon had wanted to appoint her to a board. And what this FBI file revealed was that she didn't leave medicine because she just had some epiphany about abortion, rather her career was sabotaged by racism and misogyny. She has to leave, she doesn't have a future there, she cannot get certified as a surgeon. Anyway, she becomes the head of the National Right to Life Committee and in 1975, Reagan, who's running for a president the following year, He says," I am in favor of a human life amendment." This was something that the pro- life were just beginning to introduce. They wanted to under Roe in one fell swoop by introducing an amendment to the constitution that would grant the unborn personhood. If a fetus is a human being, then of course you can't have an abortion. And Reagan comes out in favor of this and Mildred Jefferson and the National Right to Life Committee says," Hey, we're going to ask all of the would be presidential candidates what they think about this." They do that, and it's very effective. They politicize abortion in the 1976 election. What happens then is the two sides the Republicans and the Democrats, then introduce into their political platforms, stances on abortion, who were for, who were against. And four years later, by the time 1980 comes around, you now have the Republicans realizing this is like political gold here. And they are using the issue, very much so, to try to win over not only Catholics, but the newly mobilized evangelical community. Remember the Southern Baptist Convention I said was pro- choice until 1980, now they're not and they start to use the issue. And that's really when abortion becomes politicized.
Keith Simon: Yeah. People are shocked when they learned that as late as 1976, the Southern Baptist Convention issued a statement that was very pro- choice oriented. They just assume that Southern Baptist or other evangelical conservative Bible believing Christians were always pro- life, but that's not the case.
Joshua Prager: Yeah, it's amazing. I'll add one thing to that. Linda Coffee, who was the lawyer who filed Roe v. Wade and who represents Norma, Jane Roe in the beginning alongside with another woman, Sarah Weddington, and she was a religious Baptist and there was room for her to be both the lawyer, amazingly, who is attacking the abortion laws in Texas and also a religious Baptist. What happens later is she feels that she has no room for her in her church. Not only because they about- face on the issue, but also because they begin to denounce homosexuality, feminism in so many words, she was gay, and then she leaves her church. And it's very sad, she has a very difficult life now. When I found her, she hadn't been interviewed in decades and she was living in a house with no heat in east Texas. And you just see, if a person can feel both at home in their church or in their religious community and with their views, then they're a much happier and healthier person.
Keith Simon: Well, I think it's one of the themes that run throughout your book, The Family Roe, is how the movements have a way of mistreating or using people for the movements ins, their agenda. And I think Linda Coffee is one of those people who, one way to interpret her life circumstances is that she was used when she was valuable and then discarded by the larger movement. But she wouldn't be the only one who fell into that.
Joshua Prager: You're right, and I have to say that was the most depressing thing. You see people on both sides. Again, Mildred Jefferson, she ends up dying at home alone in a sea of her papers, people just let these people go.
Keith Simon: She was a hoarder to some extent, but you mentioned Mildred Jefferson in conjunction with Reagan and changing his perspective on it. Do you think that Reagan's change of opinion on abortion was just political expedience or do you think it was a genuine change?
Joshua Prager: Very good question. So, yes, she's on a television show in 1973 called The Advocates. He is the governor of California, he's tuning in and he writes her a letter saying," You know what? I wish I'd heard your testimony about this." She was a doctor. Again, she spoke about abortion in very graphic terms, laying it all out for people. And he says," I wish I'd heard you before. I helped sign that law I mentioned 1967 into effect." I believe that his rebirth was genuine. He's writing, these are private letters. He's writing to her, he says," Please tell me how I can help." The same time, he obviously was aware, he knew that there might be votes to be won. He wasn't dumb, but yes, I think it was genuine. I do.
Keith Simon: So, your book is not primarily philosophical or theological or it's not about constitutional issues. Those are in the book, but the main thrust of the book, I would say, is about the story of the people involved and their own biographies. Like you said, you're humanizing the abortion issue. And as central to the book, of course, is Norma McCorvey who was known as Jane Rowe. You spent time with her, like you said, when we started our conversation, you gained access to a lot of her papers. Can you tell us a little bit about her? What was she like? What was her upbringing like? Who is Norma McCorvey? Help us understand what she's like.
Joshua Prager: Yeah, it was a challenge because, you ask a good question and it was a question Norma did not honestly answer until I started working with her. The two books she wrote, one as a pro- choice advocate, one on the pro- life side, they just need to be regarded as fiction. She was peddling a story of her life that she saw might be worthy of her pseudonym. I'm Jane Rowe, I need to have this remarkable, dramatic life and there were constant lies. There was a reason for the lies, she was reimagining herself as not a sinner, but as a victim. To give a few examples, and then I'll answer your question, who was she really. She told people that when she had her first child, that her mother kidnapped that child from her when the truth was, she begged her mother to take the child off her hands, to adopt the child from her. She told people that she had been raped and that was how she conceived the Roe baby but in fact, it was a consensual affair with a drifter named Bill Wheaton. I write about all of the fathers of her children. She told people that when she wanted to have an abortion pre- Roe, she found a clinic and she went there and it had just been shut and there was dry blood on the floor and it was very dramatic. The truth was much more mundane and much simpler, maybe even sadder. She simply could not afford it. She didn't have$ 500, which it would cost to get the abortion or fly to California to have one. So who was she? She was born in rural Louisiana. And to step back, I show that three straight generations of women in her family, she was the third, got unhappily pregnant when they were very young. Her grandmother, her mother and her. And the reason that to me was significant is, the very same things that made the facts of their unwanted pregnancies catastrophes in their family were the same things that make abortions so fraught in this country. In their families they were religious, her grandmother was a Catholic then Pentecostal, her mother was a Jehovahs Witness, when they become unhappily pregnant it's horrible. The family wants to disown them. Just to give you one story of her own mother. When she gets pregnant, she's 17 years old, they make this poor woman, Mary leave her town, give birth to the child, go to the city, Baton Rouge, give birth to the child. Her parents then take the child from her and Mary has to pretend that child just across the Atchafalaya River is not her daughter, but her niece. Now, I'm a father and the thought of having to give my children up and have them raised by someone else against my will is miserable. That woman then becomes an alcoholic, endless affairs, this is Norma's parents, this is the home she grows up in. Sex is elicit, sex is simple and all the more so when Norma then comes out to her parents, her mother unapologetically told me that she beat Norma when she came out. Norma also was constantly in trouble. She's taken to a school for" delinquent children" and when she's 16 years old, she decides she's going to get married. She's a car hop at a burger joint, she meets a guy there and she gets married, she gets pregnant. She lies again, told people that her husband beat her, the truth was he was simply having affairs. The mother raises that child. She then gets pregnant again, relinquishes that child to adoption and she's pregnant for the third time when she becomes Jane Rowe. I'll just add, she had such a sad few years. She was a prostitute, she was a drug dealer, she was a drug user. She was working as a waitress in many lesbian bars where she was often just really drunk and had a very difficult life. And then here she is becoming Jane Rowe and she did not care about women's rights. She did not care about a woman's right to choose, she simply wanted an abortion.
Keith Simon: An abortion she never received. Her lawyers that she ends up working with, Linda Coffee and Sarah Weddington, they don't help her get an abortion. Now, Norma comes to resent them for that. Can you explain why Norma never got the abortion that she sought and how her lawyers betrayed her? At least according to Norma, they did.
Joshua Prager: They did betray her. One of the things that was remarkable, you mentioned how these people are often used by the movements they represent. Norma was used, marginalized, exploited by people on both sides of this issue and it started right away. So here she is desperately wanting to have an abortion. Her doctor says," I'm sorry, it's illegal. I can't do this." She goes to the adoption attorney who's going to help broker the adoption. His name is Henry McCluskey, he'd gone to law school with this woman, Linda Coffee. He says," I know she wants to file a suit. Let me connect you." Norma then meets Linda and Linda introduces her as well as Sarah Weddington. These are going to be your two lawyers. They were desperate to find a plaintiff. It was very hard to find a plaintiff. You had to have a woman who, even if she was going to have a pseudonym, had to be willing, in case that pseudonym is discovered, have to be willing to deal with the stigma of," Hey, yes, I'm the person who sought an abortion." You also had to find a woman who couldn't afford, as they say, to go somewhere else and they had to not be clued in. There were people, one of the characters in my book was a guy named Dr. Curtis Boyd is providing abortions in Texas pre- Roe, but most of his clients, most of his patients were college kids. You had to have someone who really was disenfranchised and who wasn't connected, who wasn't going to be able to find someone. So this is Norma and Norma at this point is approaching the end of her second trimester. Now in California, abortion was legal through the 20th week and Sarah Weddington was actually working at an abortion referral network in Austin. She could have helped get Norma to California. She also herself had had an abortion, she had gone to a doctor south of the border in Mexico. She doesn't tell Norma about the doctor that she went to, she doesn't say she'd had an abortion, she doesn't tell Norma that she'd been working in an abortion referral network, because they need a plaintiff. And when Norma later finds this out in 1992, when Sarah writes this in a book, Norma is furious. And even though her religion is for a genuine source of comfort, and you can say that is why she became a born again Christian first and evangelical than a Catholic. That's true, but what really led to her about-face, and she told me this, and you can see it in all the writings over the years in the interview, she's furious at Sarah Weddington, feels betrayed. And to give one remarkable example of that, the night after her baptism in 1995, she's on Nightline with Ted Koppel being interviewed. And even though she's now a born again Christian, a brand new life for her, she says on air that Sarah Weddington lied to me and how could she do that? And she goes off on this whole long thing. She also mentions that she believes in a right to choose through the first trimester.
Keith Simon: Yeah. I want to get to that Nightline interview in just a moment because it revealed that Norma was a person of contradictions, and that doesn't fit easily or neatly into our preconceived categories. So here she is, a woman who's just trying to get an abortion. They could have helped her get the abortion, instead they don't. They use her as a plaintiff in this lawsuit. But Norma wasn't trying to make some big statement about abortion, she just wanted her own personal abortion, but here she finds herself in this situation being Jane Rowe in this court case. And I guess the reason that they didn't direct her to get an abortion is because they didn't want to lose standing in the court. Is that right? They were afraid their case would be dismissed.
Joshua Prager: That's exactly right. In fact, there was one other potential plaintiff, a woman named Marsha King, who better represented their aim. She believed in a woman's right to choose, but the court, they file on her behalf as well. The court says she doesn't have standing because she's now pregnant at the time.
Keith Simon: I see, okay. So then, you've referred to it a couple times that Norma becomes a Christian. And if I have the story right, she is working in a pro- choice clinic right next door to a pro- life clinic and she's befriended by a Christian. Can you tell us a little bit about that story of how it is that Jane Rowe, Norma McCorvey comes to be a follower of Christianity?
Joshua Prager: Absolutely. So, one of the things that the pro- life movement has done and found very effective over the years is to establish what they call crisis pregnancy centers. And these are centers that at first glance might look like an abortion clinic. They say in the front," Free pregnancy test and come in and speak to us," and one of the ways that they work is to set up on purpose, right next door, as close as they can to an abortion clinic, because this way they can reach out to a woman who's walking into the clinic. And that is exactly what happens in Dallas, where a man named Flip Benham, who was at that point the head of Operation Rescue sets up shop. And there is a woman who works in that center named Rhonda Mackey and she has a daughter named Emily and little by little Rhonda and Emily start speaking to Norma. When Emily was, I interviewed them obviously, and Emily was a lovely kid, very smart, very precocious. And they start befriending Norma and Flip, who had become a born again Christian. He started speaking with Norma in the parking lot there. And what was so interesting was, whether you agree with him or not, he was warm to Norma, he reached out to Norma, he befriended Norma. Whereas the pro-choicers, as I say, really marginalized her. And so it's not very long, it's under a year from the time that they meet to the time that she then decides that she will have Flip baptize her.
Keith Simon: And Flip has his own story with abortion in his past. Before he became a Christian, he wanted his wife to get an abortion. She refused, she gave birth to twin baby boys and those baby boys became really important in Flips life.
Joshua Prager: The lights of his life. And in fact that's not a coincidence. People on both sides of this issue, I mentioned before, the story that Justice Blackmun had and Justice Powell on the Supreme Court, where their eyes were opened to the issue by human beings who had suffered as a result of not having abortions. And here is someone with the exact opposite experience. And there are many people in the pro- life leadership like this, who he says to himself," My God, had an abortion taken place, I would've lost what's most precious to me." And I believe that abortion is fraught for good reason. That on the one hand you have this humanity of the fetus. On the other hand, you have the very real reasons a woman might wish to have an abortion. And I think it does us all good to recognize that no matter where you stand on the issue, it is complicated.
Patrick Miller: We'll get back to the episode in just a second. But before we do, I want to encourage you to go and follow Truth Over Tribe on social. And it's not because we need more followers.
Keith Simon: Well, I need more followers. Follow me on Twitter to help my insecurities and build my ego.
Patrick Miller: Okay. So go follow Keith, to help his insecurities. The reason why we want you to follow Truth Over Tribe is because we love interacting with you and hearing from you. For example, we did an abortion episode a while back and we asked you, what do you think the church should do if Roe versus Wade is overturned? And you had so many great ideas, it was fun to chat and talk and hear what you were thinking.
Keith Simon: Yeah, without you, we can get locked into our own tunnel vision, and you bring so much perspective and different opinions to the conversation. So follow us and participate, give us your feedback. We want you to help make this show better. So in 1995, Norma becomes a Christian. She switches from being on the pro- choice to the pro- life side and she goes on Nightline with Ted Koppel, which was the big nighttime news show of the day. And in the course of that conversation, she's telling her story about why she changed but at the same time, she says she's still for first trimester abortions, which I'm sure drove some people crazy. That's not what they expected her to say. That's not what she was supposed to say, but there was always this battle over who could tell Norma's story. And why did both sides fight over that? What was so valuable to them about having Norma on their side? She's just an individual and yet she must have been bigger than that so, help us understand why they fought for it so much.
Joshua Prager: You're right. The symbolism of Jane Rowe is enormous. Just like the symbolism, as many in the pro- life community saw, of her unknown child. The Roe baby was enormous. If you can say," Hey, this person is on our side, we want to claim her for ourselves." That's a coup. And yet Norma was this uneducated, troubled, tormented person and so it was very difficult. At the same time, she's canny and remarkable navigating these very difficult waters on both sides with these Titanic personalities, these huge people on both sides, Sarah Weddington, Gloria Allred, all those people on the left, on the right side, Flip Benham, Father Pavone, Rob Schenck, all these different large personalities who wanted to use her story. What was so interesting to me about that interview on Nightline, as you know, she says," Hey, I believe that abortion ought would legal through the first trimester." What's amazing is Norma, yes, she made money best she could. She was a very poor woman, but she rung a living out of this plaintiffship. And she said what people paid her to say, as an aside, she wasn't paid as cent to Flip to the pro- life side as that documentary inaudible had said, that's not true. I had her taxes, I talked to everyone about that, but she did know, obviously, that going over to that side would enable her as well to speak to pro- life audiences, she'd be paid for that. What I want to mention though, is despite what she said, she had a genuine opinion on this and we know it's genuine because at three very different points in her life, she says the exact same thing, the first ever interview she ever gives days after Rowe in 1973, she identifies herself to a Baptist newsletter, the Baptist Press, and she says," You know what? Looking back on it now," and she'd given birth two and a half years prior, she says," Looking back on it now, I don't believe that what I did was right, wanting to have an abortion at that point in my second trimester," she says," I believe that a woman should have a right to choose, but only through the first trimester." Fast forward to the 1995 Ted Koppel interview. And as you're saying, the people on the pro- life center aghast that he or she is saying," Hey, I believe in abortion but only to this point." And then at the end of her life, I was with her through the last few weeks of her life in the hospital, she spoke very clear headedly and very passionately about the fact that she believed that abortion ought to be legal, but only, again, through the first trimester. So this is what she believed, and it's not lost on people. And it wasn't lost on me that this is in fact what statistics show and large polls show that a majority of Americans believe their support for abortion drops by the trimester, but they do believe that abortion ought to be legal through the first trimester.
Keith Simon: So let's talk a little bit about the judge who wrote this opinion, Harry Blackmun. He was from Minnesota you had said, he had his own personal story with abortion. It's not that his daughter got an abortion, but she definitely was in A unplanned pregnancy and it changed some parts of her life and how she saw her life playing out. Why was he chosen to write this opinion? Because he was a fairly junior justice, so why was this opinion given to him to write?
Joshua Prager: Yeah, you're right. He was the second most junior justice. The senior justice, the chief justice was Judge Burger and Burger and Blackmun grew up a few blocks apart in Minnesota. They'd known each other as kids and they were called the Minnesota twins. And there was speculation that the reason Burger gave this to Blackmun was because he wanted to influence the opinion. He could keep an eye on this guy, he was junior, he knew him and he could influence the writing of it. Other people said, no, it was because as I mentioned earlier, Justice Blackmun was connected to the medical community, he'd been on the council for the Mayo Clinic. And in fact, when he's writing the opinion, he then travels home to Minnesota in the summer and goes to the library there and asks them for help gathering all he could, all the information he can about abortion. It's probably a combination of those two things. What is so interesting is that it's a 7- 2 ruling and it's not Blackmun who comes up with the viability standard, what Roe is today, that abortion ought to be legal through the end of the second trimester. He actually initially says that he wants it only legal through the first trimester. It's Justice Powell who suggests this to him. And the reason viability really gets thrust into the equation, and it's a striking omission, by the way, in the leaked draft by Alito, he doesn't mention this, which is remarkable because he obviously knows it. The reason viability is there is because a Connecticut judge named John Newman, who's still living, had just a few months before Roe, introduced that into the legal thinking about it. And so that's where we are today.
Keith Simon: You identify yourself in the book, I think, as being pro- choice. I'm pro- life but you do a great job, I think, of talking about both sides in a real respectable fair way so, being pro- life, I was never distracted at all from the story you told. And one of the things that I appreciated is that in the context of this book, you talked about the abortion procedure and what is involved in having an abortion. I'm sure that was a tough decision. How did you make that decision to talk about it in pretty raw terms?
Joshua Prager: Well, I appreciate you saying that. I mentioned only in my author's note at the very end that I am pro- choice, but I really did my very best and I think I've been successful because thankfully, and it's been very gratifying for me, I've heard from people on both sides that they felt they were properly represented. And conversely, I point out the difficult things about both sides too. Like we mentioned Sarah Weddington and there's stuff on the pro life side to it that I took issue with, really trying my very best as a journalist to be fair and empathetic. So in terms of fairness and empathy, it would've been unfair and irresponsible, I think, on my part to not write about abortion itself. How can you say you're really pro- choice if you don't confront what an abortion is? That struck me as unfair, even though there are people of course who do that. And my approach in this whole thing was to find human beings whose lives touch on every part of abortion in America. So, we want to write about religion, look at, as I mentioned, Linda Coffee, who's a Baptist and struggling to reconcile these two things. You want to write about the pro- life community fairly, then look at it through the eyes of one of its leading lights, Mildred Jefferson, who really, as I say, changed the equation on how abortion became politicized. And similarly you want to write about abortion, the provision of abortion, well then find an abortion provider and write about it. So for me, I tell what it's like through Curtis Boyd. Now he is also from Texas, everyone in my book is from Texas, and he grows up in a very religious home. I believe their denomination was called primitive Baptist. I hope I have that right. And he is a preacher when he's 16 years old and he's in high school when he is horrified. His high school crush is a girl named Virginia and she gets pregnant in 10th grade and she really becomes a pariah. This is a long time ago during the depression. She's kicked out of school, she's kicked out of her church. And what really changed his thinking on this was that the guy who got her pregnant literally the captain of the football team, he was seen as a stud. His life continued on, nothing changed. This radicalizes Curtis, he becomes a very political guy in the sixties. He's a hippie. He starts providing abortions in Texas pre- Roe. And I use his story, it's how I'm able to write about abortion itself. The first abortion he ever provides wasn't a difficult thing for a reader to read about. The woman who comes to him is a very poor woman, she's 10 weeks pregnant. He just inserts an instrument and moves it around, he says, and the pregnancy ends and he checks her into a hospital and says it was a miscarriage. But then little by little over the course of literally 30 years his thinking on the matter of changes. And he believes that abortion ought to be legal further and further along in a pregnancy to the point that he now believes that abortion ought to be legal through the end of pregnancy. And I write about, well, what does that mean? What is a second trimester, abortion dilation and evacuation, what happens? And I show in there that there are pro- choice doctors who felt very uncomfortable providing this procedure. And similarly, he then becomes the largest provider of third trimester in abortions in America, after his friend, Dr. George Tiller is murdered and he feels that someone needs to now provide this service. And along the way I write about, just as you say, the difference in providing a first trimester, a second semester, or a third trimester abortion. On the other side, just to add one thing to it, I also write about in terms of something graphic, I write about the fact that people on the pro- life side, including Father Pavone, they have these memorials for aborted fetuses. And that's also very gruesome and graphic. And you hear he is storing these fetuses and formaldehyde in his building, which is remarkable and, in my opinion, horrible. So you see, it's impossible to write about abortion honestly, without a writing about the fetus itself.
Keith Simon: I think you do an admirable job of handling the hard cases for both sides. You speak respectfully about them, but you don't pull punches. So let's circle back to where we started. And that is that you got involved in this project because you realized that Jane Rowe, Norma McCorvey, had given birth to a baby that led to Roe v. Wade, and you wanted to find this person. And you did. You found her, she's now in her early fifties, a woman named Shelley Lynn. You got to know her a little bit. She had a strained relationship with her mother. Can you just tell us a little bit about Shelley Lynn, how you worked with her and what her relationship was like with her mother and her sisters?
Joshua Prager: Yeah, it's a good question, it was what led me into this whole thing. So just to step back, it makes sense that the pro- life movement would seize upon the unknown story of the Roe baby and say," Hey, had Roe been decided before Norma got pregnant, it's not now some abstract thing. You would," they say," kill this human being. This woman who now has children and they have children." And I write about that. The consequences of every life are infinite and this person would not exist. So it made sense that they wanted to know who this human being is. Now, of course, it's also complicated who this human being is, all the more so given, sadly for her, the very difficult reality of being Norma McCorvey's child. Norma had a lot of demons. She also abused drugs and alcohol in her life, including during her pregnancies, all three of her children have suffered as a result of that. They talk openly about that. And what was really difficult for Shelley, she's 19 years old, she had been adopted by a woman who really loved her and a man too. But that relationship had since broken up and she was basically raised mainly by her mother. They had left Texas, they were in Washington State and she says, she's about to turn 19 years old and all she cares about him dating cute boys and buying nice shoes. And she's walking through a parking lot one day on her way to a tanning salon when a woman steps out of a car, jumps out of a van actually and says," Hey, are you Shelley?" And she says," Yes." And she says," Well, I've been sent by your birth mother to find you." Now, initially Shelley is thrilled and she feels, wow, because any adopted person, no matter how loving their parents are, the ones raising them, they have questions. They want to know, well, who were my biological parents? And Shelley was no exception, but that very quickly sours, because it turns out that this woman was a reporter for a tabloid, the National Inquirer. Norma had sent her, not so that she and Shelley could have a nice conversation, but rather so that they could hit the road together, make money together. It's very depressing. The reporter tells her," Well, we're going to go forward with our story, whether you like it or not." A lawyer prevails upon them to keep her name out of the papers, but it's miserable. And all of a sudden now Shelley feels like she has this enormous secret and if anyone finds out who she is, she'll be overwhelmed by attention. People on both sides will want to use her as a prop and she's miserable. A few years later, she has a conversation with Norma. Norma, as I mentioned, was gay and Norma wants to come visit her with her partner, Connie. Shelley is uncomfortable with that, she now has a child. She says," Well, what am I going to tell my child about her grandmother having a wife or a partner?" Norma gets very angry and she screams at her," You should thank me for having not aborted you." Their conversation goes off the rails and they are not able to recover. There are unfortunately millions of children in this world who are born unwanted, but only Shelley's conception led to Roe. This was a big burden to carry. And despite that burden, and despite the horrible things that Norma had said to her, she felt for Norma. She knew that Norma's lot in life was not an easy one. And she also wanted Norma to know that her child, on a very deep, fundamental level, cared for her and felt for her. And she grappled," Do I go see Norma before she dies? Do I not? Do I do this? Do I not?" And at the very end of Norma's life, Shelley actually decides that she will not visit her. She says, I will probably be tormented by that decision, but I can't bring myself to do it. And it's a very sad and beautiful part of the book.
Keith Simon: Yeah. I agree. You're just tracking along with her as she tries to make these decisions, as she's connected with her sisters and then pulls back, it's just super complicated. You probably can't answer this, but I'm going to ask anyway, Shelley came out as pro- choice and it was just a little odd. I was trying to get my mind around it because, had abortion been legal, because her mother wanted one, obviously Norma wanted one that's a fact, then she wouldn't have had her life, she wouldn't have had her kids, that whole thing. Any idea how she reconciled that in her mind? Or is that just part of the complexity of the issue that we just have to live with, a lot of gray area and question marks?
Joshua Prager: Yeah, it's a great question. And it's a good question for her sisters too, because they love each other even if they have fraught relationships now, they're half sisters, the other children Norma gave birth to and they have also come out in saying that they are pro- choice. Now first, let me just say, none of them are advocates, they're not taking to the streets, they're not speaking about abortion in the ways that someone at Planned Parenthood might. And in fact, all of them very similarly say roughly the things that Norma said, that they would be horrified if abortion was used as a method of birth control. Norma even said she doesn't believe a woman ought to be able to have too many abortions and on and on and on. There were a lot of qualifiers there. I think on a very fundamental level though, I talk in the book about, at one point, Shelley has a surprise that she's pregnant. She's not married yet, but she realizes that abortion is anathema to who she is. She herself is not going to have abortion. I think the major reason why there, and she spoke to me about this a little bit, all three of the daughters wanted to say," Hey, I am not Norma." Norma was a very difficult person and all the more so you're born to this person, she was unfit to be a mother. She didn't want to be a mother and they wanted to differentiate themselves from her. So I want to communicate to your listeners, it's not like she was very comfortable with abortion itself and yet, yes, she did ultimately believe even though, and it's a crazy thing to try to imagine, she herself would not have existed had abortion been legal at that time. She nonetheless believed that a woman ought to have the right to choose. But this is not something that she was particularly comfortable with.
Keith Simon: Do you have any predictions about how this court decision is going to turn out?
Joshua Prager: Absolutely. And I had to write this in my upcoming paperback before we even got the leaked memo. I'm almost positive that what we saw in the draft will be what happens. Just to say why, it's not like I can see the future, I simply listen to the oral arguments in inaudible and there are two justices who right now, as we speak the chief Justice Roberts, who does not want a headline Roe Overturned for various reasons, he's trying desperately to switch one of them. And I can give you an example of another time when a draft did switch so, it's definitely possible. But the two justices there are Kavanaugh and Barrett. And if you listen to them, they each several times in the oral arguments and inaudible said things that make me believe that they want to overturn Roe. So Kavanaugh kept speaking over and again about precedents that the Supreme Court overruled. He wants to show that there are times when it's called for that the Supreme Court overturns Roe and he is saying that this is one of those times. Justice Barrett meanwhile, several times spoke about adoption as a viable alternative to abortion. I will just say, and I gave several examples and I could give more about how I pointed out things in the book that were uncomfortable for the pro- choice, one thing that I came to show is that one of the central claims, and has been for years of the pro- life community, is that abortion causes a woman emotional harm, emotional distress. This has been something particularly put forward by a lawyer named Allan Parker who introduced that thinking into the judicial system. And in fact, Justice Anthony Kennedy said so cited what Alan Parker wrote in an opinion, Gonzalez v. Carr, he writes about this. Now obviously there are individual women who are emotionally hurt by their abortions. And to say that isn't true is ludicrous, but from a human health, macro level point of view, the studies simply do not bear that out. And in fact, Ronald Reagan's own surgeon general, Dr. Coop wrote that this angered people in the pro- life community, but he said it isn't true on a large level. The majority women express relief, as opposed to regret. Whereas conversely, even if a woman feels very strongly that she ought to relinquish a child to adoption, and obviously that's a beautiful thing to do, there are many studies that show that is a very painful thing for a woman to do. She always wonders about her child who's out in the world. So I wrote about these two things just to finish up with your question. My guess is that, yes, the Supreme Court will in fact overturn Roe, but I do want to say that there are examples when a first draft changes and that happened very famously with Casey. The last time Roe was really threatened in 1992, everyone was sure that Roe was going to be overturned and the chief Justice Rehnquist at the time was writing his opinion, Roe was going to be overturned, and then one of the justices, Justice Suger who had been appointed by Bush, wins over to his side two justices, Kennedy and O'Connor, and they come up with a middle ground, which preserves Roe. So will I be shocked if this doesn't happen? No, but I do think that it will be overturned.
Keith Simon: Well, we're all waiting to see what happens. And of course, then that would send the abortion question back to the states and each state legislature would have to suss that out. So I really appreciate you spending time with us. Where can people find your work? I started last night, your book Echoing the Green, which is a completely different story about Bobby Thompson's home run in 1951. And I just started, you read it on audible and you do a great job of that. What other stuff are you working on? Where can people find your work?
Joshua Prager: Yeah, first of all, thank you so much for having me, it really is a pleasure to speak with you. Someone who read the book so carefully and is looking at it the way I hope people should, understanding you're pro- life, I'm pro- choice, but we're having a nice conversation about it. And I think that's a rare thing in this country. So on my website, it's just my name, joshuaprager. com, P- R- A- G- E- R. com. And you see some of my writing there. And as an aside, you can see some of the reviews of the book have been from the pro- life community and the pro- choice community. And obviously they touch on different things, but people feel it's fair. The next thing that I wrote that is coming out also has to do with the law. And it's an article that's coming out in the fall. So the Supreme Court will be looking at affirmative action in the fall and I write a lot about secrecy and secrets. Obviously I mentioned the Roe baby led me into this. I found out a crazy story that has to do with Harvard Law School and a secret involving Harvard Law School and affirmative action during world war II. Wow. That article will come out in the fall. It's pretty cool.
Audio: Who's it being published by?
Joshua Prager: I'm not positive. I just submitted, I think it'll be at the Atlantic, but I'm not sure.
Audio: Okay. Sure.
Joshua Prager: But the next thing that I am likely going to have, the next book is a small little book, so we didn't touch on it, it wasn't germane here. But I'm 51 years old, when I was 19, I had a spinal cord injury. I was sitting in a bus in Israel that got hit by a truck. My neck was broken and I became permanently disabled. I walk with a cane, but I used a wheelchair for four years, a big part of my life. And I wrote a little book years ago that was just an ebook about disability and identity. Now, I think in another year or so, it'll be published as a regular book and I'm adding to it a few things including about parenthood. There's nothing that I've so enjoyed in my whole life as becoming a parent. So it'll be a strange thing for me, changing from writing about other people to writing about myself.
Keith Simon: Well, and I watched that Ted Talk where you explained the accident that happened and the repercussions from it so, I look forward to reading the book. You're a great writer. Really appreciate your time. Thanks so much. Have a great day.
Joshua Prager: Thank you very, very much for having me. I appreciate it.
Patrick Miller: Thanks for listening. If you found this podcast helpful, make sure to subscribe and leave a review
Keith Simon: And make sure it's at least five stars.
Patrick Miller: Stop, no, just be honest. Reviews help other people find us.
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Patrick Miller: And if you didn't like this episode, awesome. Tell us why you disagree on Twitter @ TruthOverTribe_. We might even share your thoughts in an upcoming newsletter.
You may not know the name, Norma McCorvey, but you definitely know the name, Jane Roe, AKA one-half of Roe v. Wade. In today's episode, Keith talks with author, Joshua Prager, to discover who the real Jane Roe really was. The two go beyond the moral, philosophical, and theological arguments associated with abortion and discuss the people involved behind one of the most contentious debates in modern America. Joshua shares insights from his recently published book, "The Family Roe: An American Story," a project backed by ten years of research that seeks to humanize the infamous SCOTUS case. Plus, what does he believe will happen if Roe v. Wade is overturned? Listen now!
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