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Why Norma McCorvey Switched Sides

The perils of turning the plaintiff in Roe v. Wade into a political symbol

It is perilous for a person to become a political symbol. Norma McCorvey, the plaintiff at the center of Roe v. Wade, knew perhaps better than anyone the difficulties of representing something much larger than herself. When she stepped into public view, identifying herself as Jane Roe, she became an important voice in the pro-choice movement—the woman who carried her own unwanted pregnancy to term in order to secure the rights of millions of women not to. Later, she made a shocking conversion, transforming herself into a crusader for the pro-life cause. All along, she courted the attention: She told her story countless times to journalists and filmmakers, to the co-writers of her memoirs (one published before she switched sides, one after), to almost any organization willing to pay her to speak. What did she think she was doing?

The Family Roe: An American Story
by Joshua Prager
W.W. Norton & Company, 672 pp., $35.00

In his new book, The Family Roe, Joshua Prager sifts through the many stories McCorvey told about herself, up to her death in 2017. Over more than a decade, Prager unraveled the details of McCorvey’s life, drawing on her personal records and his own interviews, and tracing her struggles with depression and substance abuse, with poverty and a difficult family, and with being gay in the conservative South, as well as the influence of the pro-choice and pro-life activists who wanted to claim her as a prize. As Prager reveals, much of what she said about her life was self-serving, riddled with exaggerations and lies. All too happy to accept a role in the great abortion morality play, she stubbornly refused to stick to the script.

Prager’s book is not just a biography but also political history. The Family Roe traces the rise of abortion in America, both before Roe v. Wade and after, as well as the backlash to the 1973 decision. In the process, he writes intimately about major figures on both sides of the fight, centering the story on three Texans—McCorvey; Mildred Jefferson, a star of the anti-abortion movement; and Curtis Boyd, a doctor who opened and still operates abortion clinics in Texas and New Mexico.

Their stories are of interest in large part because the battles they fought are still ongoing. The pro-life backlash to Roe began almost immediately after the 1973 decision and has been gaining ground ever since. In September, a law banning abortions after six weeks went into effect in Texas, unchallenged by the Supreme Court. On December 1, the court will hear a case challenging the repeal of a Mississippi law banning abortion at 15 weeks; the state is asking the court to overturn its earlier ruling and abolish federally protected abortion rights. This year, over 200 members of Congress filed a brief asking the Supreme Court to strike down the decision. One way or another, for nearly half a century, we have been relitigating Roe. And yet, all this time, we have known little about the central figures who dedicated their lives to this fight.

Norma McCorvey did not set out to be a hero. In 1970, she contacted a lawyer named Henry McCluskey. She was pregnant for the third time, by a man she’d met playing pool, and didn’t want to be. Her first daughter, born when she was a teenager, was being raised by relatives. McCluskey had helped her place her second child in an adoptive home. Now, she wanted his help again, but not with an adoption. She wanted to have an abortion, but her doctor had told her he couldn’t help, because the procedure wasn’t legal.

McCluskey connected her to a friend and fellow attorney, Linda Coffee, who was looking for someone like her. Coffee had become convinced that she could make the case that abortion laws in Texas denied a woman her right to privacy. She wanted to challenge the laws, but she needed a pregnant woman who wished to have an abortion to serve as a plaintiff in a lawsuit. By the time Coffee and her co-counsel Sarah Weddington met McCorvey, however, she was likely already at 20 weeks—too late to have an abortion even in the few states where it was legal. They explained to her that it was unlikely that she’d be able to have an abortion, but didn’t totally rule it out. McCorvey agreed to go ahead.

To Coffee, McCorvey seemed like the perfect plaintiff: She was a woman in Texas seeking an abortion who didn’t have the money to go to California to get one. Beyond that, the lawyers seemed not only to be unconcerned with their client but almost actively uninterested in her. Just before they met their plaintiff, Prager notes, Weddington had helped write the American Bar Association’s ethics code, which stipulated that a lawyer should work “solely for the benefit of his client”; but in McCorvey’s case, the lawyers seemed to have bigger concerns in mind. They didn’t try to help her get an abortion—even though Weddington was part of an abortion referral network, and had had one herself in Mexico a few years prior. And they did not involve her in the legal process, beyond having her sign the affidavit. McCorvey was a means to an end.

By the time the Supreme Court made its decision in 1973, McCorvey had given birth, and her baby, now living with adoptive parents, was a toddler. When she found out that her lawyers had prevailed, she was wallpapering her home with her girlfriend, Connie Gonzales—about as far away from the spotlight as she could be. She made her identity known in an undramatic fashion: A reporter from the Baptist Press called Coffee for comment, and Coffee passed his number to McCorvey, who called him back. She was quoted in a brief article saying, “It’s great to know that other women will not have to go through what I did.” But later that year, a reporter from Good Housekeeping called, wanting to profile her. McCorvey seized the opportunity to reinvent herself. She claimed she was a victim of domestic abuse at the hands of an ex-husband and said, falsely, that the child at the center of the famous case was a result of rape, rather than a brief affair. Those were not the only lies she told the press. As the years went on, Prager writes, Norma’s lies included “ever more tales of sexual violence that by all accounts Norma did not suffer,” including an alleged rape by a nun in school, by a cousin, by a stranger in Dallas, and by three men in Georgia.

For several years after that, McCorvey lived out of the public eye. In the 1980s, she reemerged, mostly as a media curiosity—journalists called for stories tied to the anniversary of the ruling, and she was a great interview subject, if a dishonest one. But McCorvey wanted a bigger role in the movement her lawsuit had sparked. She attended rallies and fundraisers to speak in favor of abortion rights, and would later stand beside the lawyer Gloria Allred in public appearances. In 1987, she accepted an invitation to speak at a NOW rally opposing the nomination of Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork.

But that same summer, she admitted in a TV interview that she had lied about being raped. “A little bit of hell broke loose,” an abortion provider who knew McCorvey told Prager. The movement distanced itself from her. Invitations to speak at pro-choice rallies stopped coming. “We don’t know anything about her,” one NOW official was quoted as saying. “If she wants to be a leader that’s fine, but she should go out fighting in the trenches and become a leader.” McCorvey wrote them off as a bunch of classist snobs. And when, several years later, she found out that Weddington herself had had an abortion and worked with an abortion referral network, it deepened those seeds of resentment. She became convinced that Weddington could have done more to help her.

McCorvey’s major turning point came in 1995, when she was working in an abortion clinic in Dallas, answering phones and advising prospective patients. A Christian pregnancy crisis center run by Operation Rescue, an extreme anti-abortion group, opened up next door. McCorvey told the press she was “horrified.” But she began talking with the pro-life activists working next to her, and they offered McCorvey the sense of belonging she felt she’d been denied by the pro-choice movement. McCorvey became friends with the daughter of one of the anti-abortion center workers, a little girl named Emily. The child was disarming, and the two formed a relationship that McCorvey had never been able to have with her own children. She also developed a crush on Emily’s mother, who did not reciprocate. Flip Benham, who ran the crisis center and sensed what a coup it would be to convert her, gifted her a Bible. “They genuinely love me,” McCorvey told a reporter, “and they care about my salvation.”

Despite what she had said in public, McCorvey had long felt conflicted about her role in legalizing abortion. She was haunted by the decision to give her daughters up, by the sight of playgrounds, and by visions of the procedures that her lawsuit had helped enable; in a radio interview in June 1994, she had told Terry Gross that she once saw blood on the floor of a recently closed abortion clinic. It was another later-in-life revision of her story, but one that suggested she was already starting to believe in the pro-life nightmare of what those spaces looked like. In 1995, she got baptized and began proselytizing about the mass murder of babies that she had helped bring about. She would falsely claim, Prager recounts, “that she became Jane Roe because her lawyers got her drunk and didn’t tell her what an abortion was.”

The pro-life movement made political capital of her conversion: They had convinced the woman at the center of Roe to switch sides. “God has given Norma to us,” Benham said. Another pro-life leader declared that “the poster child has jumped off the poster.” If she could change her mind on abortion, who’s to say that other women wouldn’t do the same?

Her conversion brought a lot of pain, especially for Gonzales, as McCorvey, over time, began to profess that homosexuality now appalled her and “that she herself had never really been gay.” But perhaps no one suffered more from the differences between McCorvey’s public and private personas than her children. Prager tracks down and extensively profiles for the first time each of McCorvey’s daughters. McCorvey’s youngest, Shelley, was unaware of her parentage or her role in the famous case for most of her childhood. But at 18, with McCorvey’s blessing, an “adoption detective” and a tabloid reporter traced her. They told her who her mother was, and pressured her to go public with her own opinions on abortion. The experience was traumatic, and it wasn’t made better when she connected with McCorvey, who told her she should “thank her” for not having her aborted. Shelley never forgave her, and the anger she harbored toward McCorvey haunted her for years, preventing her from developing relationships with her biological sisters.

Almost anyone who worked with McCorvey came to realize the limits of trying to make her into a political symbol—driven not by ideals so much as by her own personal sense of pain, anger, and betrayal, she was prone to outbursts, frequently off message, incapable of being a spokesperson. Toward the end of her life, she started to say, again, that abortion should be legal through the first trimester, and believed that Trump would succeed in outlawing it. Of course, she spun this final reversal to maximum effect. “This is my deathbed confession,” she told the film crew who made the FX documentary AKA Jane Roe. The filmmakers asked if her pro-life turn had been an act. McCorvey said that it was. News outlets, including The New York Times, picked up on the claim that McCorvey had been paid to switch sides. Yet even that wasn’t really true, according to Prager—she had been paid to give speeches and write her book after she converted, just as she had been paid in her past life as a pro-choice advocate. “I was lonely for some excitement,” she told him of her conversion. “I needed to do something that would cause media attention. Isn’t that awful?”

Does it matter that the woman at the center of Roe v. Wade changed her mind? Prager excels in revealing the messy, complicated people at the heart of America’s abortion fight; their motives, he seems to say, are much more tangled than any of them would likely admit. Boyd, the doctor, begins performing abortions after awakening to the necessity of women’s reproductive freedom—inspired, in part, by a childhood crush whose reputation was ruined by an unwanted pregnancy. But he prioritizes his work over his family, bringing an end to his marriage. Weddington takes ever greater credit for her role in Roe, eventually all but erasing Coffee from the litigation that was her most significant achievement. Coffee struggles with money and career management to such a great extent that, when Prager tracks her down later in life, she is living in poverty with her partner in a small town in Texas.

None of the people who populate this book is a perfect hero, nor are there perfect villains: Prager makes the convincing case that Mildred Jefferson, who became president of the National Right to Life Committee and whom Ronald Reagan credited with awakening him to the horrors of abortion, found her way to a career as a pro-life spokesperson in large part because of racism. The first Black woman to graduate from Harvard Medical School, Jefferson was denied her dream job of being a surgeon due to sexism and bigotry in Boston’s medical establishment. The work she went on to do as a pro-life leader allowed her the professional notoriety a traditional career in medicine hadn’t. She was praised by one politician as “a beautiful, articulate, educated, black woman, a surgeon, and not even a Catholic, but a Methodist.”

Prager’s rendering of McCorvey reveals a woman vulnerable to the seductions of media attention and desperate to make something of the limited circumstances of her life. In her side-switching, Prager sees a reflection of the American public’s views of abortion. “She embodied the national ambivalence, the desire for legal yet limited abortion, as no Schlafly or Steinem could,” he writes. In another passage, he quotes one of her pro-life friends, who says that McCorvey “personified the abortion debate ... complicated and conflicted about her own beliefs as many of us are.”

Did she personify it? I am not so sure. It’s hard to believe, knowing as much about McCorvey’s lies and reversals as we do, that she held any of her opinions in earnest. Once, after getting off the phone with a Christian woman while she was still ostensibly pro-life, she tells Prager: “It’s really a lot harder on this side because you gotta act like you care. But I don’t really give a shit.” And while the pro-life movement lauded McCorvey’s switch as a major coup—an indication that people were prone to change their minds and nurse regrets on abortion—in reality it didn’t change much: Public opinion on abortion has been relatively fixed in the last three decades, with a majority of Americans believing that it should remain legal in most or all cases. If Roe is overturned, it will not be because of a deeply ambivalent public, incapable of choosing sides. It will be because a highly motivated minority has won.

The Family Roe is a fascinating portrait of a woman whose life was shaped by the abortion debate. But it is not a story about a woman who had an abortion. That distinction is important. Among the many characters we come to know intimately through Prager’s reporting, we don’t hear in any real capacity from women who have actually had an abortion. We don’t read about what effects, positive or negative, those abortions had on their lives. Reading Prager’s book, I couldn’t stop thinking about them—and about all of the women out there who might need an abortion in the future but could be denied one in a post-Roe world. They will be the real legacy of Jane Roe.