In This Episode
Melissa interviews journalist Joshua Prager about his book, The Family Roe: An American Story. Prager spent hours interviewing Norma McCorvey (aka Jane Roe), her daughters, and other key figures throughout the decades-long debate over abortion rights in America.
Melissa Murray: Hey there, listeners. As you know, on June 24th, 2022, the Supreme Court issued its decision in Dobbs versus Jackson Women’s Health Organization. In that case, the court not only upheld Mississippi’s 15 week ban on abortion. It also overruled Roe versus Wade and Planned Parenthood versus Casey, the two pillars of the court’s abortion jurisprudence. In this strict scrutiny summer school episode, we do a deep dove into the people behind Roe versus Wade. In a conversation with Joshua Prager, the author of The Family Roe An American Story. This conversation was initially sponsored and taped earlier this year under the auspices of the Birnbaum Women’s Leadership Network at NYU. And we are grateful to the folks at the BWLN for hosting this conversation and for allowing us to share it with strict scrutiny listeners. We hope you enjoy it. First of all, let me just say I am so delighted to read this book as someone who thinks about reproductive rights a lot, maybe too much. And over the last couple of months, this book is at once sweeping and lyrical, but also deeply, deeply human, in a way that the political debate about reproductive rights often is not. And so I just want to call attention to the title. You called this the Family Row and American Story. And we will talk about who the family row refers to. But I’m really interested in this idea of this being an American story. So what about this book reflects a kind of quintessential tale about America and American exceptionalism?
Joshua Prager: That’s a good question. It was my editor at Norton who came up with the subtitle, and I was delighted because, yes, I at every turn was sort of mindful that this story could only take place in this country. And when I when we chose that subtitle, I really had in mind both meanings of the family row. So I’ll just quickly allude to that. The Family Row refers both to Norman mcCorvey, Jane Roe and her three daughters, and then the larger American family and the sort of tens of millions of Americans, as I see it, who are bound by Roe, though they’re on sort of opposite sides of this issue. And I think in terms of Roe itself, you know, much has been written about why in America, why is it uniquely here that this issue of abortion has sort of created this 50 year civil war? And there are many reasons, given the traditions here, of individualism and feminism. Some people who perhaps are more opposed to Roe will say, oh, it’s because Roe came to us through the courts as opposed to sort of legislation. I think above all that it owes to America’s puritanical roots and the sort of seeming irreconcilable already here of sex and religion. And I looked at that last issue through the family row in terms of Norma and her daughters, the sort of smaller family. And I, I didn’t know any of this when I started, but I wanted to understand where did Norma come from? And I looked back at her family, and she was from a tiny little river town in Louisiana. And she, it turned out, was I went back to generation. She was the third consecutive generation in her family, a woman who had an unwanted pregnancy that sort of rerouted her life. And so that irreconcilably, as as it played out in that family, I thought opened a mirror, opened a window, I should say, onto this sort of larger American issue. And then after she becomes Jane Roe, it’s sort of so unbelievably ludicrously American. You know, she’s being whisked off to Hollywood by Gloria Allred. She’s being baptized in a pool as the as the cameras roll in a Texas swimming pool by an evangelical minister who dyes his teeth white and blow dries his hair. And so, you know, it was sort of ridiculous in some ways. And also, there’s at around every turn, there’s money. Norma is monetizing her plaintive ship. She’s ringing from it sort of about a living. And so both her family and as I saw it, Roe v Wade itself really sort of could have only happened here in America.
Melissa Murray: Yeah, that’s really helpful. And again, a culture at which in which sex is both ubiquitous but also verboten in some way. And then it’s also a story about the women. I mean, it is the women who find themselves sort of trapped by these pregnancies, by their own poverty, by the precariousness of their family situations. And you chronicle not just Norma. Kirby and her three daughters and their progenitors, their mother, Mary, sister Velma and whatnot. But there are also some other individuals here who are really important. And again, I want to say this is an epic book in every sense of the word. It is sweeping in the same way that we think about Homeric epics, and there are all of these ancillary characters who pop in. So it’s not just about Norman mcCorvey and her family, but also people like Linda Coffey and Sarah Weddington, who are the lawyers who litigated Norma Corby’s challenge all the way to the Supreme Court. There’s also Mildred Jefferson, who is absolutely fascinating, an African-American doctor who, because of her own experiences with discrimination, becomes very much alienated from the medical community and finds a hole in the pro-life community. And then there is Curtis Boyd, who becomes alienated from his traditional religious upbringing and becomes an abortion provider and really sees it as his life’s mission. Maybe to the detriment of his own family life. So these are not people who are related to Norma mcCorvey, but they are part of this broader habitus in which reproductive rights unfold over the course of this period that you are documenting. So can you say a little bit about them and how you decided to include them in the book?
Joshua Prager: Yeah. You know, Laurence Tribe in his book, The Clash of Absolutes, he said that basically it was incumbent upon us to try to sort of bring to life the human reality on either side of the versus meaning of Roe versus Wade. And that’s really what I tried to do. I wanted to be able to tell this much larger story through the lives of human beings. And so to do that, I needed to find a cast of characters whose lives would touch on every single aspect of what abortion in America has become. So, for example, if if you want to write about the danger that abortion providers face providing abortion, I needed to have an abortion provider. And that was how I came to settle on Curtis Boyd. And I wanted all of my characters were based in Texas. That was really Texas is very much a part of this book. And just to mention with Boyd for a moment, I needed to find somebody who represented the movement as it is today and decades before. People like Katha Pollitt were saying that abortion should not be safe, legal and rare, as president put it. Because why should it be rare? It is only a social and moral good. You had Dr. Curtis Boyd saying that exact thing, saying that abortion is only a good it empowers women. It enables them to live their lives, the lives that they choose for themselves. And the reason that Dr. Boyd came to where he was, it began when he was a kid in high school in East Texas and a girl he had a crush on got pregnant, and her life was forever ruined. She was a pariah. She was made to leave school. She was excluded from the church. And this struck Curtis as incredibly unfair. And that sent him off on his way. Similarly, Dr. Jefferson, you mentioned the first African-American woman to graduate from Harvard Medical School. She has a personal experience also that prefigures much of what sort of the pro-life movement has become. She comes to feel that abortion ought to never be allowed, never be legal. It is to be considered murder from conception, with no exceptions for rape or incest. Well, how did she get to that place? And I examined that, you know, when she was a doctor, the fact that in the in the 1960s, she had graduated from Harvard Medical School, that wasn’t enough. She was black and she was a woman. And I found an FBI file that showed what she suffered as a result of that intense misogyny and racism that torpedoed her career. And then right at about the time that she didn’t know what to do, the American Medical Association says, okay, from now on, doctors, you must defer to your state laws. If the state law says that you ought to perform abortions, then perform abortions. And she thought this was horrible. And she finds a new cause. And she very quickly, very quickly becomes the spokesperson, really, of the pro-life movement. She, more than anyone, politicizes the moment. She sees opportunity in politics. She brings Governor Reagan into the fold. And then when he becomes president, he turns to her over again for advice. She she in 1976 is is really the reason that the Republican Party first puts abortion into its platform. Of course, forever more. Both parties have done so. And on and on and. So I was looking for people who sort of enabled me to tell this large, enormous story through human beings. And that’s that’s really what I did.
Melissa Murray: They’re all sort of avatars of different parts of this movement that all contribute to the landscape that we currently have now. It’s absolutely fascinating. And you bring them to life with such zest and color. I mean, like you really do get to know these people in really minute details. Like I read about Mildred Jefferson in my own work. I had no idea that she had all of these sort of broader issues. Apparently, she was financially incontinent in a lot of ways, and she had difficulty weeding through her possessions. And it led to a lot of strife in her personal life. But you give them a kind of humanity that really is exemplary, even. You have to sort of almost see them as fully formed human beings, as opposed to exemplars of a particular aspect of this movement.
Joshua Prager: I wanted to understand them. What makes a person like Dr. Jefferson come to the set? And that she came to where she literally died in a sea of her own papers alone in an apartment in Cambridge, Massachusetts. And what was so fascinating, why was she even living in Cambridge, Massachusetts? Well, that was because when she was young, interracial marriage was illegal in more than half of the country. And she wanted to sort of expand her opportunities for marriage. And she came to fall in love with a young white sailor who was almost a decade younger than she was. And eventually they did marry in 1962. Her hoarding and her sort of absolutism about so many things, really, in the end got in the way of them having a happy marriage and they divorced. What’s so fascinating, this is a woman who told the country that every single conception needs to lead to the birth of a child. And yet she came to the conclusion that life was so unfair and so unjust that she would not bring a child into this world. Her ex-husband spoke to me at great length about the fact that she said, if we marry, we are not to have children. And so people are complicated. And there was a lot of hypocrisy in a lot of it, a lot of the behavior that I witnessed in a lot of these people, and yet they’re three dimensional characters. And I happen to think that abortion is fraught for good reason, and I’m able to explore that sort of ambivalence and complexity through the through this cast of characters. You have really seven characters, Norma and her three daughters, and then these three people around row Curtis Boyd, Mildred Jefferson and Linda Coffey.
Melissa Murray: The portraits that you paint of these individuals really are detailed in a way that can only be produced if you really have the trust of your subjects. So how did you manage to cultivate relationships with these individuals over the course of researching this book so that you could give us this kind of detail and color?
Joshua Prager: It was difficult. The first thing that was necessary was time. I needed time. So to just give the first example, when I reached out to Norma Jane Rowe, she would not speak with me unless I paid her. I told her I was not allowed to do that. Well, that was in 2010. In 2013, I had gotten to know her daughters. We can speak about that in a minute. And they brought me one of them brought me to the wake of Norma’s mother. And there there I was in there, Norma was and this was in 2013. And Melissa, Norman’s eldest daughter, said, Mom, I want you I want you to be good to this person because he has helped me. She said he has found my sisters. And at that point, Norma said, okay, I will speak with you. And what was so interesting was over the years, Norma had lied over and over and over again to give one example that just leaps to mind. And really, the entire story that she told into autobiography is one, when she was pro-choice, when when she was pro-life, really needs to be regarded as fiction. But when she was in Catholic school, she wrote that she was raped by a nun in Catholic school, but in fact, she had had a consensual experience with a woman who was about to become a nun. And what what I noticed about that experience and what defied most of the lies that she told or would explain most of them was that she was re-imagining herself not as a sinner, but as a victim. Which goes back to really the beginning of the book, not only Norma’s life, but her mother’s and her grandmother’s life, because they grew up her grandmother grew up sort of Pentecostal or. Her mother was Jehovah’s Witness. Norma renounced religion, later became evangelical. And in all of these families, religious sex was something that was sinful, verboten, illicit. Also, in the case of Norma, because Norma came out as gay when she was in high school, her mother was very open with me. I interviewed her mother before she passed away, that she found this repulsive and that she beat her daughter for this for her lesbianism. And so in terms of gaining trust. I needed time. But I also said to these people, look, I. I am not going to lie to you. I am pro-choice. I mentioned that fact in my author’s note, but I am going to do my very best, no matter where you stand on this issue, to write about you with empathy and understanding. That started, by the way, with my decision to use the terms pro-choice and pro-life, that both sides feel that those words are a mischaracterization of who the others are. And I think what happened over time was that people came to feel comfortable with me, and that was incredibly important. It’s also important to understand Roe, because just to give one example, that also just leaps to mind. Alan Parker is a lawyer in Texas who was the head of the Justice Foundation. He, more than anyone, is responsible for sort of popularizing the idea that if a woman has an abortion, she will suffer for that abortion psychologically. The phrase they use is post-abortion syndrome. Now, it doesn’t matter that that has been debunked by science, that President Reagan’s own surgeon general, R.S. Everett Koop, who was ardently pro-life, said that from a public health standpoint, the effect is minuscule. Nonetheless, that has been an effective tool for the pro-life community. In fact, Justice Kennedy validated it to some degree in Gonzales v Carhart. And yet what I what I want to say is he had never really given an interview before. And here you have in my book his entire biography that helps you come to understand why, for example, he distrust science and what made him likely to go down this road.
Melissa Murray: I actually found your detail of him fascinating in light of the current moment where science is a subject of deep skepticism among some quarters of the country. And again, that the reminder that there was always a back story, perhaps to our antipathy for particular things or skepticism for particular things. So that was very helpful. But I am especially interested in you touched a little bit of this in your last answer. But the detail of Norma, right. So Norma mcCorvey is something of an antihero in this book. And she is in your telling part fabulist, part dictum, someone who, because of the mores of the time, feels compelled to reinvent and retell her story in ways that are palatable, not just to the public more generally, but to her herself. She, I think, is looking for, in the words of Titanic, an absolution that will never come. And she’s also looking for community, which is interesting. She is part of this quite large family that you detail, but she is essentially place less within her family, within the broader landscape of reproductive rights because of her class. And her lack of education doesn’t fit into the pro-choice circles that celebrate Roe. While they celebrate Roe, they merely tolerate her and keep her on the sidelines in a lot of ways. And she’s not the face of their movement. And because of her sexuality, she is neither fully embraced by the pro-life community, nor is she truly welcome, because I think they are a little bit skeptical and suspicious of her. How does this place listeners really shape your understanding of her and what she ultimately becomes and her path?
Joshua Prager: You’re right. She’s an antihero and she’s and her life is tragic. She never really finds a home. On the one hand, she had an insatiable want for love and affection and attention. She lied endlessly, not only to reimagine herself, as I say, as a victim as opposed to a sinner, but also to get in the newspaper. I mean, and she was phenomenally good at it when she was dealing drugs at the time and there was a shooting at her house. She told the press that this that this happened because she was Jane Roe and she got on the front pages of papers all over the all over the country. It was very sad because this was a person who had she been treated differently? None of this would happen. It starts pre Roe. I mean, when she is Jane Roe, she is desperate to have an abortion. And her lawyers could have at least tried to help her get one. But obviously she was more valuable to them pregnant than non-pregnant. They had struggled to find a plaintiff and they didn’t do right by her. And what ends up happening is later on in 1992, when Sarah Weddington writes a book and tells the public that she had had an abortion, Norma is furious. Not only did she find out that her own lawyer did not tell her that she had. Abortion, but that Sarah was working for an abortion referral network and might have helped her. It was complicated. Normal was probably around the 18th week, 19th week of her pregnancy. But a woman who worked in that abortion reform network, a woman named Victoria Foa, told me that up to 20 weeks they were able to help women. So it started there, that sort of the fact that she sort of wasn’t treated properly and it continued. She really wanted to join the movement. She wanted a seat at the table that started in the mid to late 1980s, and she wasn’t given one. She wasn’t invited to the protest. She wasn’t invited to the book parties, etc..
Melissa Murray: Why was that? Why were they at such great pains to keep her at a distance?
Joshua Prager: Part of it is understandable. She had lied publicly. In 1987, she came out and said that, Hey, back in 1973, I told people that I came to be pregnant with the Roe baby, as she called it, by a rape. That was a lie. She recanted that lie in 1987, and they didn’t trust her. But even after she devoted years of her life to sort of mastering their language and their orthodoxies, they did not give her a seat at the table. And I unfortunately think it is an issue of class. Christine Luker, the famous sociologist and author. Oh, there you go. Well, she wrote beautifully about how class really was, what divided the pro-choice from the pro-life. I came to see that it also divided the pro-choice movement from itself. And Norma was very much pushed aside, and she resented that enormously. And what happened was, when she was in Texas in 1994, working in an abortion clinic, what happens all over the country now? A quote, you know, quote unquote, crisis pregnancy center sets up shop right next door. And that’s exactly sort of what what the CPCs are intended to do. They go right next to an abortion clinic. They sort of pose as one. And then they they try to dissuade the woman who will have an abortion from having one. They offer therapy, they offer love, they offer a pregnancy test, etc.. Well, Flip Benham, who was an evangelical minister, the one I mentioned later baptized, turned a swimming pool in Texas while the ABC cameras roll. He he started speaking with her in the parking lot where his C.P.S. and her abortion clinic were. And he put his arm around her and he told her that he understood, he told her he’d been a sinner and on and on and on. And she was low hanging fruit. It wasn’t particularly difficult. And yet, as you correctly note, it’s so sad. What she really wanted, Norma, was to be able to be sort of pro-choice and gay, and she didn’t find that she could be who she was in either camp, because the people on the pro-choice side, first of all, she was only believed in abortion through the first trimester. But setting that even aside, as we discussed, they didn’t involve her even when they would be discussing her and her suit in in in the White House or in Congress. She was never invited. So she didn’t have a home there. And which where she did have a home, she was made to renounce her homosexuality. And the only person who really cared about her all her life, who cared about more about her than the fact that she was Jane Roe was a woman named Connie Gonzalez, and Connie was her partner of 40 years who tolerated horrible sort of behavior from Norman, infidelity and abuse of all sorts. And yet Norma was made to leave her bed and they and they had to sort of sleep in separate rooms after she joined Operation Rescue. And so Norma had a difficult, difficult life.
Melissa Murray: [AD].
Melissa Murray: One of the most searing chapters in the book is about Norma’s decision to become the anonymous plaintiff in the Roe versus Wade case. Again, it is one of the most troubling parts of the book, I think, as a lawyer, because when you read it, you cannot help but identify the number of professional ethics issues that arise in the way in which Linda Coffey and Sarah Weddington go about representing Jane Roe. Norma mcCorvey So can you say a little bit about how she came into their orbit and how they convinced her a woman seeking an abortion to instead become the face of what would become a landmark decision and ultimately a movement.
Joshua Prager: It’s remarkable how they meet her. So Norma had had two children previously had relinquished both to adoption as an aside. One of her other lies was that she had written and told everyone that her first child was kidnaped by her mother. The truth was, she begged her mother to sort of take the child off her hands. And eventually her mother, Mary, did adopt Melissa from her. But anyway, when Norma gets pregnant for the third time, she is desperate to have an abortion. She does try to have one. She goes to find a clinic and she does find one, but she can’t afford it. It’s $500. She later tells Terry GROSS and everyone else that she went to a clinic and it had just been busted and there was dried blood on the floor, etc., etc. But the truth was simpler. She simply couldn’t afford the abortion anyway. And so she goes back to the adoption attorney who had brokered the first two adoptions. And he’s a remarkable man. His name is Henry McCluskey. And he had actually helped to fight the sodomy laws in Texas. And a woman who had helped him do so was a classmate of his from from law school and her name was Linda Coffey. And Linda had just told Henry that she was hoping to challenge the abortion statutes in Texas, but that she needed a plaintiff. And so Henry says, hey, I’ve got a would be plaintiff. Here’s a woman who was desperate for an abortion. So we introduces Norma to Linda. And again, right about this time, Norma is maybe weeks, 17, 18, 19, and it’s still possible for her to have an abortion. But Linda Coffey reaches then out to Sarah Weddington. And the lawyers do not tell her that. They tell her instead that it’s too late for you to have an abortion, but you can help sort of, you know, further the cause of reproductive rights. Now, Norma didn’t care about this cause she cared about having an abortion. And what’s so interesting to me most of all, was this this obviously bothered the lawyers. They knew that what they did was wrong because Sarah, over and again in the years that followed, lied and told people that the reason Norma did not have an abortion was that she needed to carry her pregnancy so that she would have standing in the eyes of the court. Now, that’s not true, both from a what actually happened perspective, but nor is it true from a legal perspective. She But that is what she said. And so the fact that there was something wrong about what they were doing was clear to everyone.
Melissa Murray: It’s not exactly false. I mean, there had been another prospective plaintiff, but she was again, pregnancy typically last less time than litigation. And so there’s always the problem with pregnancy that you will have the child before you actually get a decision. I’m sorry. Go on.
Joshua Prager: No, I was just going to say so. Marcia King is that is that is that would be plaintiff. And she was everything Norma was not and she was ruled not to have standing a right because she wasn’t pregnant at the time the case was filed. But as I understand it, that was all that had to happen. And in fact, in the road decision, Justice Blackman just says, look, it is our understanding that Jane Roe was a real person, that she was pregnant when the case was filed in March and again in May, I believe, when it was made a class action suit. That’s all he says. And Norma checked those boxes. Interestingly enough, only one of the other justices brings up in anything that they wrote how far along Norma was in her pregnancy. Justice Rehnquist says that for the case to sort of have merit, Norman needed to be in her first trimester when she filed suit. She was not. She was in her second trimester at right at the beginning, actually, of her third. But the way I understood it was Norma. Only needed to be pregnant at the time the case was filed. Really? Or, as Justice Blackman says, when it was then made a class action suit for the case to have merit for her to have standing.
Melissa Murray: So I think to be clear, and I’m only reinforcing this because there’s a terrific question in the chat that asks us if we’re being a little hard on Linda Coffee and Sarah Weddington in expecting them to help their client to get an abortion. They two were quite young themselves. And I do think there is something to the fact that the whole question of whether a woman’s pregnancy could be sustained long enough to mount litigation against an abortion statute was a really live question because the pregnancy obviously only lasts 40 weeks and litigation last much longer. There was this constant question whether or not there would be an injury that the woman could bring because if she was actually giving birth, that there was no problem. And it’s, as you say, just as Blackman notes, that if this is a situation where there is an injury capable of repetition but evading review, then it’s all fine. But Roe is actually the case that embodies that. So it’s the first case that sort of talk specifically about that in the context of pregnancy. But I think before that, Sarah Weddington and Linda Coffey are kind of litigating on, you know, a sort of uneven terrain in terms of what is or is not permissible. And I think they worry that they’re not going to have a plaintiff. But again, the ethical issues in not being upfront with your prospective plaintiff that you are not going to get an abortion because this litigation is going to take much longer than your pregnancy. So you can either cut and run or you can continue this. And there’s a lot of discussion about how Sarah Weddington wanted this case to go forward. They both wanted this case to go forward.
Joshua Prager: Yeah, that’s right. It is true that they never told Norma that if she became their plaintiff, she would still be able to have an abortion. But they never told her the truth, which was that if she decided to become the plaintiff, it was impossible that she would have an abortion. Nor did they tell her that, setting aside the case, they could have hypothetically helped her to have an abortion. Sarah Weddington, just a few years ago, in an event that she did with Linda Coffey, the two lawyers had not seen each other in almost 30 years. They did an event together in Texas. Sarah mentioned that there was a flight that took every Friday, American Airlines that flew women from Texas to California, where abortion was legal through the 20th week to nonresidents to. So they were they were helping people to do that. There was also in Washington, D.C., Dr. VU, which I think that’s yeah, that’s it. Yeah. He was I spoke to his son who worked in his clinic. He was performing abortions even beyond 20 weeks. And then, of course, there was the clinic in Mexico where Sarah had gone and where another member of that abortion referral network, Victoria FO, had also gone. So maybe you’re right, it’s complicated, but I actually think I am being fair. I write at great length about all of the options that were available to Norma that that they did not choose to sort of let her know about. And that is a complicated and difficult thing. And yet, just to sort of repeat the point, Norma would not have been upset about this had she never learned these facts. It was only in 1992. And Sarah then writes this book saying, I had an abortion and I was part of a referral network that Norma feels completely betrayed.
Melissa Murray: Let’s talk about the wrote children. So Norma mcCorvey actually has three daughters. There’s her daughter, Melissa, who is the first child that is born to her. This is the one who was first kidnaped, but then it turns out, has actually been surrendered to Norma’s mother, Mary, to be raised. There is the second daughter, Jennifer, who was given up for adoption to Henry McCluskey, who places her with a family. And then there is Shelley, who is Baby Roe, that the pregnancy that ultimately catalyzed Roe versus Wade. Where are these women today? What were their lives like? Because they all seemed to kind of fall almost reflexively into some of the same patterns that their foremothers fell into. And yet they’re all being raised in completely different circumstances. So is this a situation where nature predominates over nurture?
Joshua Prager: I wrote a lot about family nature, nurture, abortion, adoption. All of these things sort of come through in the stories of Norman and her daughters. So, Melissa, as we said, she was the only one who knew Norma. She was raised by her grandmother, but Norma was in and out of her life. At first, she thought. Normal was her sister and her life was very, very difficult. And she suffered enormously for having Norm in her life. For example, just to say one horrible example, she remembered to me that when she was, I think, five years old, Norma came to visit her where she was in Louisiana and locked her in the car all night on a rainy night so that she could hang out with her boyfriend. A man who, by the way, it turned out, was the biological father of her third child. And Melissa was desperate to sort of not be the mother or the anti mother that Norma was to her and that her grandmother was to her mother and that her great grandmother was their grandmother. And she has heroically stayed true to that despite a miserable marriage that she finally sort of got out of. She has managed to be a good mother to her two daughters, and that is a remarkable thing. Jennifer, the second child, she suffered in another way. She struggled with addiction to drugs and alcohol. And she always wondered, is there something in my biological makeup that accounts for that? Do I have a sort of a genetic predisposition to these addictions?
Melissa Murray: He also struggled with her sexuality, both of the two older daughters. One of Melissa’s first sort of acts of defiance of Norma is to have sex with a man to prove that she is not gay. And then Jennifer struggles with sexuality for most of her life.
Joshua Prager: Melissa was desperate to not be her mother. And she she has sex. She’s 14 years old. 15 years old. So as to confirm that she isn’t gay. It’s so sad. And yes, Jennifer is first married to a man and then has relationships with men and finally comes out and was was greatly relieved to learn that her biological mother was gay. In fact, her biological father is bisexual, so neither of her biological parents were straight. Jennifer had not heard of Roe v Wade when I found her, but she had been desperate to find her biological mother was. And it was a great relief to her. She and Norma then had a relationship the last few years of Norma’s life. And just one important thing to say, as a journalist, I only connected these children with each other and with Norma because they themselves had been desperate to find their biological relatives. And the youngest child, Shellie, she was the one who led me into this entire story. I read an article in The New Yorker in 2010 that mentioned that Norma that Jane Rowe had not been able to have the abortion she sought. That struck me as sort of remarkable. And then I said, oh, yes, of course, a law case takes longer than a pregnancy, as we’ve been discussing. And I went to I went off to look for this person. I first reached out not to her when I found her. I ended up finding my way to her because Norma’s private papers have been left behind in the garage where she had lived with Connie. And when I went to visit Connie, Norma’s former partner, she told me that her home was about to be foreclosed on and those papers were about to be thrown out. I later, I purchased the papers from Norma. She did not want them. And they’re now at the Schlesinger Library at Harvard. But anyway, those papers had a date of birth for Shelley, the youngest. I found my way to her, but I didn’t reach out to her first in case she didn’t know who she’d been born to. I reached out to her mother and I asked her mother how the woman who raised her. Do you know the name Henry McClusky, the adoption attorney? She said yes. And we know about Norma, too. They had found out about Norma because when Shelley was 18 years old, the National Enquirer came upon her in a parking lot where she lived near where she lived in Washington state. They told her they would write about her, whether she wanted them to or not. Eventually, with the help of a lawyer, she prevailed upon them not to include her name and yet forevermore. She was terrified that she would be outed. She hated that she was seen as a symbol, as the living sort of argument against abortion by the pro-life. She didn’t like that. And when I reached out to her, it took time for her to decide to participate. Once her sisters participated, she then did, too. And one of the most sort of painful moments in the book is when Shelley has a conversation with Norma. Norma had decided to look for Shelley right after Gloria Allred took her under her wing. And obviously, this is a person who is no stranger to press and and headlines. And it is not a coincidence that Norma decided to look for the role, baby, right after she was represented by Gloria Allred and after the article appears in the tabloid, it does not mention her by name. Norma wishes to reach out to Shelley. They have sort of a complicated conversation when they speak again a few years later. Norma says that she would like to visit Shelly and she wants to come with Connie. Shelly says that this would be difficult for her. How am I supposed to explain to my son that his grandmother is with another woman? At that point, Norma says, you need to thank me. Shelly says Why? And she says, for not aborting you. They have a miserable conversation and they never speak again. And yet, Shelly, at the very end of Norma’s life, finds it within herself to feel for Norma and contemplates visiting her on her deathbed. But in the end, she chooses not to. So, yes, these are complicated, tormented lives. And yet I was able to to write about them, I think, in a way that was pleasing to them and that was honest. And that, as you say, sort of is a window into these larger questions of nature and nurture and family and adoption and abortion. So it’s a complicated story.
Melissa Murray: I’m going to turn to some of the audience questions. If the anti-abortion position is actually about moral or humanitarian reasons and not about the repression of women. Why is there no attention paid to the men who do the impregnating? And I’ll note that your book actually does feature a number of the men of the pro-life bent, including Flip, Dennis Shank, so many of them. How do they reconcile their own sort of privileged position as men in a movement that is about basically having women bear pregnancies through to gestation?
Joshua Prager: I mean, that is a very difficult question for me to answer. I would say I think two things. One, it was fascinating for me to see how often personal experience sends a person down the path that they end up on. So for example, Troy Newman, who has literally called for, I guess, the judicial for abortion providers to be killed under certain circumstances. I go into it in my book as to when he says that is permissible. Just to give you a sense of how extreme this man is. He was adopted and you’ll see why I mention that in a moment. Flip Benham, the evangelical minister, who the only the only, by the way, it’s so interesting. He’s so rabid about homosexuality. The only time that he says abortion ought to be allowed to happen is if you know that you are a boarding a homosexual fetus. That was sort of a shocking thing for me to come upon while he wanted his wife before he became a pro-life minister to have an abortion, she did not want to. She ended up giving birth to twin boys who are now sort of, you know, that he loves his sons. And I go through many more instances of times when people who are prominent in that position feel that they are close to someone who was almost aborted. And so that to them becomes everything. And I think that accounts for a lot of it in terms of are you saying like, how can I account for their hypocrisy? I mean, it’s it’s staggering, obviously, but I think they tell themselves that they’re on the side of God. And, you know, just as an aside, it was very interesting for me to sort of research even the view of the Catholic Church, let alone the Southern Baptist Convention, which flipped from being pro-choice to pro-life in 1980. But you only have to go back to 1970 to a time when the Catholic Church allowed or did not consider abortion, murder, I should say, pre quickening. So, you know, it’s it’s helpful for me to point out that even though some sort of feel that they are speaking for God, those those divine positions are only sort of recently came to be. You know, I also over and again are mindful in the book that I’m a man writing this book. And and I tried to do my best to sort of point out the fact that over and again, it was obviously men deciding everything for women. So just to give three examples that come to mind. Sarah Weddington, 26 years old, there she is in the Supreme Court. She’s looking up at the bench in front of her nine male justices looking down at her. She said she was literally sort of wondering how she appeared physically them. How should she look? Should she look demure?
Melissa Murray: And Harry Blackmen is actually noting what she physically looks like.
Joshua Prager: In fairness to him, he noted that also of of Jay Floyd, the man who argues opposite her. But yes, but then you have the American Medical Association, which was comprised only of men. And for many years, you know, they were the lone sort of arbiter of which of what was a therapeutic abortion, when could abortion be performed or not? And Katha Pollitt had a fascinating observer. Nation that I quote in my book that when men write about abortion, it’s often sort of as a symbol of their own, let’s say sterility or something, something. Whereas when women are writing about it, it’s a matter of life and death and and it’s described as something physical. I was mindful of this throughout as I wrote my book. And I do write about endlessly, actually, about it as something physical. And I also write about the men here. They don’t sort of come off scot free. I found all three biological fathers of Norma’s children and wrote about them.
Melissa Murray: Were you able to actually interview the biological fathers?
Joshua Prager: So. So two of them are no longer living, but I tell their stories. And the second one is living, Peter, Jennifer’s father, and Pete Aguilar. And he was a fascinating character. You know, he actually had he had proposed to Norman when he found out that she was pregnant, he wanted to sort of do right as he saw it. But she said, nah, let’s not get married. I’m going to give the child up. And he was very upset that he had no say in that matter, interestingly enough. And when he connected with Jennifer, he had for 50 years he had wondered if he was a father and who his daughter was. And and connecting with her was very important for him. And it helped her to just sort of fill in this missing piece. I don’t know if I’ve answered your question exactly, but.
Melissa Murray: It’s actually really helpful to sort of hear about the process. And you’ve answered a number of other questions that I’ve had along the way. So you’ve been very present. And one of the things that you do touch on in the book is the escalating violence of the pro-life movement. And the choice of Curtis Boyd is really interesting because you can sort of see the violence sort of escalating around him. And it culminates, as you know, in the book with the murder of George Tiller. Did you ever think about centering Tiller in the story or was it really important to sort of place all of this in Texas? In oral arguments in SB eight, Justice Alito noted that Texas is an abstract entity, and you definitely got that sense reading your book, that Texas is as much a character in this as anyone else. But was that part of the reason why Tiller is more ancillary to the story?
Joshua Prager: Actually, I was. One of the things that excited me about choosing Boyd was that I would then be able to tell Tiller story, because the reason Curtis Boyd is now the largest provider of third trimester abortion in America is because his friend was murdered. And when Tiller was murdered, the leaders of the of the National Abortion, I forget the acronym, but the Organization of Abortion Providers in America turned to him and said, Look, we need someone to do this. And he and his wife, Glenn, step up and they decide that they are going to do this. At the same time, I want to mention that it’s complicated and my book shows that this is complicated stuff because now Curtis has come to believe that abortion ought to be able to be performed right up until the moment of birth. And that is a radical position. Now I show how it is that he came to decide to provide third trimester abortions. He was overcome with guilt when he turned away a woman who was just entering the third trimester and with a with a fetus that had Tay-Sachs disease, something a miserable disease, where the child is born and suffers and dies when they’re when they’re a toddler. And he felt very bad about that. And it’s not to say then that that that abortion should not have been performed, but it’s complicated. And I chart Curtis is like three decade or four decades sort of evolution from the time when he begins to provide abortions pre Roe and he would be his first abortion he performs that ten weeks. When Roe happens, he won’t go past 16 weeks. And then, of course, he then comes to the position that he now occupies. I just want to say one more thing about that, because obviously right now you’ve got SBA with the cut off at six weeks in Mississippi at 15 weeks and viability at 24 weeks. You know, one of the things that was sort of maddening for me and I and I had to educate myself about all this when I started, I didn’t know any of this. But it’s maddening when the pro-life world says, hey, America is so radical, Roe is so radical that it’s even more radical than super liberal Western Europe. Well, it is true that in Western Europe the cut off, the legal cut off is earlier in the pregnancy in countries like France and Switzerland, for example. But it’s ridiculously not a fair comparison because until the point that abortion is legal, the state does what it can to help the. Woman have an abortion. Abortion is largely free, available everywhere. And most importantly, there are these endless sort of obstacles put in her way. She’s not told that abortion causes cancer. She’s not made to endure various tests, invasive procedures. She’s not made to come back twice. She’s not made to get the consent of her of her doctor or her boyfriend, etc., etc., etc.. So that is something that is is very frustrating when you hear that said.
Melissa Murray: Well, it’s also the case in those other Western European democracies. If a woman chooses to carry a pregnancy to term, there is also far more robust state support for the family, which again the poverty of Norma’s family is really striking throughout this entire story. So backing out to Curtis Boyd and you note that his ultimate position that abortion should be provided right up until the moment of birth is not just a radical position. It is an incredibly controversial position and one that the pro-life movement often trots out as a way of sort of, you know, this is the ultimate goal of the pro-choice movement. Given that you are pro-choice, are there any parts of sharing this story that give you pause? And, you know, do you wonder that what you’ve shared here will become ammunition for either side in this ongoing culture war?
Joshua Prager: Yeah, it’s a very good question. I thought about it a lot. And you know what? I told myself, I’m going to write the truth. I’m going to take out my side and get rid of all the propaganda and the rhetoric, which meant, by the way, just sort of pointing out endlessly that when, for example, the pro-life side, when they talk about post-abortion syndrome, not only is that not. True. Obviously, there are individuals who have struggled psychologically because of an abortion. But, you know, on a macro level, there’s nothing to it. But not only that, what the pro-life say, that a woman who’s pregnant with a child she doesn’t want, she should give it up for adoption. Well, what is what is definitely proven true by data is that there is an enormous correlation between the relinquishment of a child at birth and and and psychological torment. So that is actually a very, very difficult thing for for an enormous number of women who do choose to do that. So I said to myself, I’m going to write the truth. And if there are points in this book that then where the truth is uncomfortable, maybe that’s okay. Maybe we should. It’s not just about winning and only providing ammunition for my side. Maybe there are also corrections that ought to happen on the side that I care about. I’ll give you an example. I wish to hell that like, you know, that the pro-choice side looks at the tale of Norm as a cautionary tale and says, You know what? We need to treat people like Norm a better. And I also quote an abortion provider in the book who’s on the front lines in like Mississippi or something as saying that she feels that her clinic is sort of looked past by the by the powers that be in the pro-choice movement in Washington, D.C., in New York City. So, okay. Well, someone on the other side sort of, you know, take out that one piece and put it forward, maybe. But I think and if I this might be sort of egomaniacal, but I’ll quote something that The New York Times said in their review of my book, which that ultimately my book, I’m not going to quote it from them, but it’s something like it’s a century long, granular case for women’s sovereignty over themselves. So I think sort of by focusing on Norma and her family and her ancestors and her children, you come to understand quite clearly what denying women choice does. But I also think that there is blame to go around. I do think that abortion is fraught for good reason. Once upon a time, it was okay to acknowledge that there was a you know, that like I mentioned what President Clinton said earlier, that abortion ought to be safe, legal and rare. You may disagree with that, but it is a defensible position. And now there’s no room for that position. You have to only speak, as Curtis Boyd does, of abortion, as something as only a social good. And I think that that ultimately is a disservice to the pro-choice movement.
Melissa Murray: I think that’s all the time we have. We are at time. And I’m mindful that everyone has other things to get to, including the work that is being done right now to preserve reproductive rights all over the country. And so I just want to thank you for this incredible read at such an urgent time. The book is called The Family Row An American Story by Joshua Prager. Thank you so much for this broad and expansive conversation. This is really a delight. And the book was a delight as well.
Joshua Prager: Thank you. I was really honored to have this conversation with you. Thank you so much.
Melissa Murray: Again, that was Joshua Prager, the author of The Family Row An American Story. We’re so grateful to the Birnbaum Women’s Leadership Network at NYU Law for hosting this conversation and for letting us share it with strict scrutiny listeners. Before we go, I wanted to note that there are 100 days until the midterm elections. In those elections, voters across the country will shape the future of civil and voting rights when they elect dozens of state court justices. This year, these elections will decide many of the judges who could hear election law cases in 2024 when Trump could once again try to overturn election results. And they may also hear cases dealing with reproductive rights now that each state is responsible for determining the legality of abortion. We know just how high the stakes are. And on November 8th, we need to make sure our voices are heard and protected. Join Vote Save America as Midterm Madness program and take our company and pledge to volunteer, including our July 31st weekend of action. Get involved in the most important elections in 2022 at Vote Save America icon. 14 Midterms Strict scrutiny is a Crooked Media production hosted and executive produced by Leah Litman, Melissa Murray, and Kate Shaw. It’s produced and edited by Melody Rowell with Audio Engineering by Kyle Seglin Music by Eddie Cooper, production support from Michael Martinez, Sandy Girard and Ari Schwartz with digital support from Amelia Montooth and Summer Internship support from Anoushka Chander. We’ve got more great summer school episodes coming your way, so be sure to subscribe to strict scrutiny wherever you get your podcasts.