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With Senate Bill 8 now in effect in Texas, and as we await the results of the lawsuit the Justice Department has brought against the state, it seems like an opportune moment for the publication of Joshua Prager’s book, The Family Roe: An American Story. A former senior writer with the Wall Street Journal, Prager has made a specialty of uncovering historical secrets, including the sign stealing that enabled the Giants’ World Series win in 1951 and the identity of the only anonymous Pulitzer Prize recipient, Iranian photographer Jahangir Razmi. The origin story of The Family Roe began in a similar vein in 2010, when Prager realized that the plaintiff in Roe, Norma McCorvey, had never succeeded in securing an abortion, despite winning her case. Instead, in Dallas in 1970, McCorvey delivered and put up for adoption a baby girl who successfully evaded the public eye, save for an article in the National Enquirer in 1989. At the time Prager learned of her existence, this child was nearly 40 years old.
The Family Roe is not just an American story; it is also a story about Texas, where I live. Roe was filed in Dallas, McCorvey spent most of her life in this state, and all the central figures in the book hail from it. The book, which is deeply reported and beautifully written, wants readers with all kinds of beliefs about abortion to step back and think about one another as people. The problem is that this is a mission that seems naïve, in light of the terrifying, rights-denying law that we now have in Texas. And the narrative’s focus on the state, which has been so much on our minds in the last few weeks, makes Prager’s inability to speak to our present crisis all the more aggravating.
Prager’s search for McCorvey’s daughter, her third, led him to track down her two half sisters and Norma herself. The Family Roe recounts the lives of Norma McCorvey and the three daughters she birthed but did not raise. Melissa, born in 1965, was cared for by her grandmother and aunt in Louisiana and Texas. Jennifer, whom McCorvey put up for adoption in 1967, grew up outside of Dallas. Shelley, or baby Roe, was raised by her adoptive mother in Dallas and then Seattle. All struggled with their birth mother’s rejection. Prager also traces McCorvey’s prehistory, uncovering how three generations of her family were shaped by unwanted pregnancy. Her grandmother, mother, and half sister all became pregnant outside of marriage at age 17. They led hard lives, marked by poverty, domestic violence, and addiction.
The Family Roe uncovers McCorvey’s “family” in another sense too, telling the stories of three Texans whose lives were similarly shaped by abortion: Mildred Jefferson, Curtis Boyd, and Linda Coffee. Jefferson, who died in 2010, was the first Black woman to earn a medical degree from Harvard. Pushed out of practice by racist and misogynistic discrimination, she became a star in the anti-abortion movement in the 1970s and 1980s, headlining rallies, speaking on TV, and testifying as an expert witness in key legal cases. Boyd, Jefferson’s junior by a decade, began a career practicing abortion in Texas before it was legalized. Fiercely committed to women’s reproductive autonomy, he eventually became one of few doctors in the country willing to perform third-trimester abortions. And Coffee is the little-known young lawyer who filed suit in Roe, alongside Sarah Weddington who has often received full credit for the case.
Prager’s book presents us with a painstakingly detailed account of McCorvey’s life, her exploitation by the pro-choice and anti-abortion movements, as well as her inability and refusal to fulfill the expectations and desires of those on either side of the debate. After the U.S. Supreme Court decided Roe, McCorvey failed to become the spokesperson mainstream feminist organizations and activists wanted. She was poorly educated and politically inexperienced. She lied about her past—even claiming, falsely, that her pregnancy in Roe was the result of rape—and expressed doubts about the ethics of abortion after the first trimester.
By 1995, as Prager tells it, McCorvey had grown frustrated with the pro-choice movement and (by her own admission) sought excitement. In a matter of days, she moved from providing counseling at an abortion clinic in Dallas to working next door at the local chapter office of Operation Rescue, the anti-abortion organization that notoriously encouraged the use of violence against abortion providers. She became a born-again Christian and later a Catholic. But her religious conversions were at odds with her persistent desire for women, her drinking and drug use, her reluctance to wear a bra or comport herself in the way religious anti-abortion leaders expected. By 2015, when Prager was in the process of interviewing her for the book, McCorvey had been abandoned by both causes. Although her presence had helped to draw untold amounts of money to both sides, she was living below the poverty line, struggling with depression and poor health.
The queerness of Roe’s history is one of the more unexpected themes of this book. McCorvey recognized her feelings for other girls as a teenager, and her family did too. “I beat the fuck out of her,” McCorvey’s mother later told Prager. McCorvey had one failed marriage and continued to have relationships with men, but she preferred women. In 1971 she found a lifelong partner in Connie Gonzalez, who remained devoted to McCorvey for 40 years. The relationship was not a happy one. McCorvey raged at Gonzalez, cheated continually, and left periodically. After her first religious conversion McCorvey publicly renounced homosexuality, but continued to live with Gonzalez and sleep with other women. Eventually, McCorvey abandoned Gonzalez after she became incapacitated by a stroke in her 80s.
McCorvey is not the only queer figure in this story, and Prager shows how the struggles for gay rights and abortion access have been intertwined. Coffee, the lawyer who brought the Roe case with Weddington, is a lesbian, and the Dallas-based adoption lawyer, Henry McCluskey, who connected McCorvey and Coffee in the first place, was gay too. In 1969, Coffee helped McCluskey file suit in a federal court case, Buchanan v. Batchelor, challenging the constitutionality of Texas’ sodomy statute. Coffee and McCluskey argued, as Coffee would in Roe too, that the state’s law infringed on individuals’ right to privacy.
Yet even as The Family Roe sheds new light on Roe’s history, Prager makes some serious omissions. In a work of nearly 700 pages, there is no mention of the organizing of women of color who have, since the 1970s, pushed white, middle-class feminists to move beyond the paradigm of “choice,” to recognize that true reproductive justice requires not just the right to prevent an unwanted birth, but the right to raise children in health and safety.
But most of all, the book suffers from the delusion that this rift in American society over abortion can be healed by combatants’ willingness to recognize the humanity of those on the other side. The book opens with an epigraph taken from Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick: “Be it said … see how elastic our stiff prejudices grow when once love comes to bend them.” At multiple points, Prager bemoans the way the issue of abortion has “consumed” people across the political continuum from Boyd to Jefferson. He argues, regretfully, that like these two figures, Americans on either side of this issue have become more polarized and extreme in their views since the 1970s. The fault for our current divide, he seems to suggest, lies with both.
By showing McCorvey in all her unruly and unappealing complexity, Prager powerfully refutes the idea that women should have to win a morality contest in order to “deserve” access to abortion. The pro-choice movement doesn’t need a figurehead. But Prager holds McCorvey up as a different kind of symbol, an emblem of what he presents as the majoritarian middle view on abortion. “If Norma was uncomfortable with the increasing surety and absolutism of both movements, she was hardly alone,” Prager writes, arguing that she “embodied the national ambivalence, the desire for legal yet limited abortion, as no [Phyllis] Schlafly or [Gloria] Steinem could.”
Living in Texas in the midst of the unfolding disaster of S.B. 8, I feel frustrated with what seems to be a plea for unity. Perhaps it’s possible from where Prager writes to call for a détente, but from where I stand in Austin, it’s not. I have no desire to meet in what McCorvey called the “mushy middle” with those who would sue me for helping someone secure an abortion. In some ways the “middle” is precisely where we are, and it’s not good: Roe v. Wade still stands, but it has been growing less and less accessible for years, hollowed out by state and federal restrictions and limitations. As of 2017, long before this most recent wave of “heartbeat” abortion bans, 89 percent of counties did not have an abortion clinic.
Perhaps it’s unfair to judge Prager for falling short of the moment. He’s a journalist, as he says, not an advocate. But he chose this story, and the stakes are high. The lives of millions of Texans hang in the balance. The Family Roe may help us better understand those who were intimately involved with Roe v. Wade in the past, but it has little to offer in our present.
Correction, Sept. 15, 2021: Due to a photo provider error, the caption originally misidentified the woman McCorvey is hugging.