The life of “Jane Roe” of Roe v. Wade was not what it seemed.
When Norma McCorvey, using the alias “Jane Roe,” sued Dallas district attorney Henry Wade for the right to an abortion that Texas law prohibited, she won plaudits from pro-choice feminists throughout the nation. Years later, in the late 1980s, McCorvey abandoned the anonymity of her alias and became a public advocate of abortion rights and a sought-out speaker on the pro-choice lecture circuit.
But in 1995, McCorvey took an action that made her a hero to a very different group of people: pro-life Christians. She renounced most of her earlier support for abortion rights and converted to evangelical Christianity. A photo that was widely reprinted in many evangelical publications showed an ecstatic Flip Benham—the director of Operation Rescue and the pastor of a Free Methodist church—baptizing a beaming McCorvey. Three years later, McCorvey converted to Catholicism, an action that may have linked her even more strongly to the pro-life cause. Yet in the last two years of her life, McCorvey distanced herself from organized religion, said that she supported abortion rights in at least the first trimester, and told a documentary filmmaker that her work for the pro-life movement had merely been an act.
So, which version of McCorvey was the real one? What does her complicated story tell us about the 50-year political battle over abortion rights in America? And what does it tell us about the Christians who have been caught up in that struggle?
Joshua Prager’s The Family Roe: An American Story is a masterpiece of journalistic research that uncovers the story not only of McCorvey but also her entire family, as well as a number of other Texans whose lives were caught up in Roe v. Wade.
(Full disclosure: Because I am a historian who has written about the pro-life movement, Prager reached out to me for help in locating a few archival sources, and at his invitation I offered comments on a few chapters before publication, but the research, interpretation, and story line are entirely his own).
A tragic story
If McCorvey always remained somewhat of a shadowy figure—with neither pro-choice nor pro-life activists knowing for sure what she really believed—her extended family is even more obscure. Yet Prager, an award-winning journalist and best-selling author, spent more than a decade tracking down every member of the “Roe” family he could find, including McCorvey’s three children, her mother and half-sister, and some of her long-term partners. In the process, he uncovered a tragic story of poverty, deceit, exploitation, and copious amounts of illicit sex and drugs.
McCorvey was an alcoholic, a chronic drug abuser, and a lesbian, but she was also a mother. Despite her landmark lawsuit, she had never had an abortion, even though she had wanted one. Two years before the Supreme Court ruled on her case, the child that she wanted to abort was instead given up for adoption—which meant (Prager knew) that the child could be located. Prager did locate her, along with her two older sisters, each of whom had been fathered by a different man and adopted by a different family. In addition, Prager interviewed many of McCorvey’s associates, including the lawyers who represented her in Roe v. Wade, along with numerous others associated with the legal battle over abortion in the 1970s.
McCorvey, he found, had grown up in a broken home, with an abusive alcoholic mother. For a short time, when McCorvey was in elementary school, her father tried to reform the family through religion: They were strict Jehovah’s Witnesses for a few years. But eventually, the family left religion, the father left the family, and the mother went back to drinking. McCorvey, in turn, came of age with a determination to try her parents’ vices, her father’s cigarettes and her mother’s alcohol. That, in turn, led to harder drugs—first marijuana and then cocaine and barbiturates. She began sleeping promiscuously with men but found relationships with women much more satisfying. McCorvey had many such same-sex relationships, and in between, she occasionally had trysts with men, some of whom she met in the bars where she worked or drank. Three of those relationships produced children.
The first child, Melissa, was raised partly by McCorvey’s mother and partly by an aunt. Her family was so dysfunctional—with so few sober drivers among her relatives—that the state of Texas gave her a “hardship license” in her early teens so that she could legally drive and take care of her family. The experience gave Melissa a determination not to drink or be like her relatives. What she longed for more than anything else was a stable home. Despite—or perhaps because of—her family’s drug abuse and promiscuity, she was drawn to the moral rectitude and assurance of a Southern Baptist church.
“Everything Norma stood for,” she said, “I didn’t want to be.” She did lapse in her standards a little, sleeping with three different men during her late teens, but then she got married and found joy in raising a child. And despite the abuse she had received from her mother, she was the only one of her sisters to care for McCorvey during her later years and to remain at her bedside when she passed away at the age of 69. Yet Melissa’s dream marriage ended in abuse and divorce, and at the end of the book, she is found postponing a hoped-for second marriage after her fiancé shocked her by downing four beers at a barbecue, an action that reactivated her deeply rooted fear of alcoholism.
The second daughter, Jennifer, was adopted at birth by an unrelated family and never knew about Norma McCorvey until she was an adult. Yet she developed an uncanny (and tragic) resemblance to her mother: She discovered in her teens that she was gay and loved alcohol. Like her biological mother, her own adult life became a life of heavy drinking and lesbian flings, mixed with unhappy relationships with men and two failed marriages. When she finally learned that both her mother and her biological father were bisexual, it all made sense, she thought; no wonder she was attracted to women. Today she is recovering from years of alcohol and drug abuse.
Shelley, the youngest, was adopted by a Lutheran family in the Northwest that started out looking like a picture-perfect Christian home but was eventually torn apart by her adopted father’s alcoholism and subsequent divorce. She was 19 when she learned that Norma was her mother—at which point she was aghast. She was pro-life, she said; she wanted nothing to do with a woman who had tried to abort her and was completely unapologetic about it. But over time, Shelley’s views moderated. She became pregnant out of wedlock herself, and though she ultimately decided to keep her baby, the experience made her more sympathetic to women like her mother who did want to terminate the pregnancy.
But that sympathy did not extend to McCorvey. At the end of the book, even after her mother’s death, Shelley states that she is unable to forgive her mother for first wanting to abort her and then wanting to exploit her in the tabloids after tracking her down many years later. And yet her bouts with depression and anger remind her that, despite her deep desires to transcend her biology, she is “just like Norma.”
As the book’s timeline concludes in 2020, just after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, all three sisters are pro-choice, and all have been divorced. None ever found the stable, long-term romantic relationship they were seeking. And Shelley, having lost her job in the pandemic, is struggling to pay her bills.
Prager describes himself as pro-choice and says that he believes that a fetus is only a “potential child,” yet he recognizes the complexity of abortion choices. McCorvey, who never had an abortion, is tormented by the choice not to have one. Shelley, the daughter that McCorvey wanted to abort, spends a lifetime feeling unwanted and abandoned and struggles for decades with deep anger against the mother who wanted to end her existence before she was born. Both described themselves as both “pro-life” and “pro-choice” at different points in their lives, even though neither label fully fit. And if McCorvey and her daughter found it difficult to come to terms with abortion and Roe, so have many Americans, Prager suggests.
Throughout the book, Prager challenges readers’ presuppositions and refuses to fit the book’s messy stories into clear moral categories. Things (and people) are not always what they seem. Nearly all the people profiled in this book carry deep secrets that they refuse to reveal to others—but that Prager, as a master journalist, repeatedly succeeds in uncovering.
Take, for instance, Linda Coffee, the Texas attorney who represented McCorvey in Roe. She was both a strong abortion-rights activist and a faithful Texas Baptist who loved church and felt that she couldn’t tell her fellow parishioners that she was sexually attracted to women and didn’t believe in God. Or her fellow attorney Sarah Weddington. She was a Methodist minister’s daughter who presented herself as a devout Christian and felt that she couldn’t tell others about her own abortion in Mexico only a few years before Roe.
The Supreme Court justices who decided Roe didn’t publicize the abortions and unwanted pregnancies in their own families and close circle. Henry Wade, the Dallas district attorney whose name would forever be linked with Roe, didn’t tell people that he was actually a pro-choice liberal who only defended the Texas law out of duty, not because he believed in it. Mildred Jefferson, the president of the National Right to Life Association—for a while the nation’s most visible pro-life activist—used half-truths and outright lies to keep nearly all of her life hidden from public view. She covered up her financial mismanagement, her marriage troubles, the limits of her medical experience, the reasons for her childlessness, and her deep resentment of a world that had discriminated against her on the basis of both her race and her sex, despite her being the first African American woman to earn an MD from Harvard Medical School.
But perhaps the most prolific deceiver in the book is Norma McCorvey herself, who spent a lifetime fashioning so many falsehoods that none of her associates could quite figure out what to believe. Prager, though, thinks he has uncovered the truth: McCorvey was a woman who intensely craved attention and would make up stories about herself to win people over. She also remained a deeply selfish and bitter person who nevertheless was attracted by what she thought was Christian love from the evangelicals who sought to convert her.
She embraced the role of a pro-choice spokesperson—followed by pro-life activist—mainly to get attention and to become a hero. Inside, she was deeply conflicted about abortion. She never wanted to be a mother and she sensed that she did not have the skills. During the brief time when she cared for her oldest daughter Melissa, she locked the young girl in her car while she and her boyfriend went into her trailer to take drugs.
Yet she also longed for children. When she passed empty playgrounds, she was given to melancholy thoughts about the children who would never be born because of the case she had brought to trial. When she gave talks to pro-choice groups, she made the mistake of referring to abortion as killing. Years later, when she gave talks on the pro-life circuit, she made the mistake of saying repeatedly that abortion should be legal in the first trimester. She found interviews with both groups so unnerving that she made it a point to get drunk before each media appearance.
A useful symbol
Both pro-choice and pro-life activists exploited McCorvey. In 1970, when she came to Linda Coffee, she really wanted help in getting an abortion, which Coffee could have easily arranged by sending her to a doctor in Dallas who performed illegal abortions, or to a hospital in another state where abortion was legal. Yet Coffee did not do this, because she was more interested in winning a court case for women across the nation than in helping one woman terminate her pregnancy. McCorvey was useful to Coffee only as a symbol, not as a person.
Similarly, 25 years later, the pro-life activists who championed McCorvey’s conversion could have taken her off the media circuit in order to offer counseling and help to the woman who still lived with her lesbian lover and who often showed up drunk and confused to the events she was supposed to headline. But her symbolic value as a convert made it too risky to insinuate that her born-again experience was anything less than complete.
Prager’s story can easily be read as a near-hopeless tragedy. There’s plenty of religion in the book, but most of it seems powerless to change people’s lives. For most of the characters, religion is something they try for a while and then discard in frustration when members of their church reject them or when they decide they can’t live by its standards. Others in the book angrily reject religion as oppressive. Dallas’s leading abortion doctor grew up as a fundamentalist Baptist but then abandoned his plans for the ministry and embraced the cause of women’s rights and abortion access.
Still others, like Mildred Jefferson, found that religiously based moral rectitude could not prevent loneliness and alienation. Unlike nearly every other character in the book, Jefferson, the daughter of a Methodist minister, abstained from sex until marriage and from alcohol and tobacco for life. Yet her desire to own more things than she could afford led her into credit problems that derailed her medical career almost as soon as it began and destroyed her dream of becoming a surgeon. And her workaholic tendencies and lack of affection for her husband led him to leave her for another woman—after which Jefferson never remarried and became more bitter than ever.
Welcome the messiness
What should a Christian make of this complicated and often tawdry story? Should we conclude that sex outside of marriage is inevitable, that abortion is necessary in some circumstances, that a cycle of drugs and poverty is unlikely to be broken, and that churches are usually unable to change lives?
Obviously, this is not the message of the gospel. But Prager’s narrative should serve as a cautionary tale about the dangers of looking for easy solutions instead of engaging in the hard work of gospel-driven transformation. Sin is messy, and there are never any easy solutions to a sin problem.
Adoption—which Christians have often championed as the preferred solution to unwanted pregnancies—can be traumatic for both birth mothers and their children, as Prager’s book reminds us. It is not a cure-all for every ill. The vitriolic condemnations of homosexuality that McCorvey encountered in evangelical Christianity and the promises that a person with same-sex desires could easily overcome them were not helpful. And religiously driven moral standards without Spirit-produced heart transformation will lead, more often than not, to frustration rather than lasting change.
Prager’s book shows us the tragic results of these realities. But rather than giving an excuse for despair over the pro-life cause or evangelical Christianity in general, it should remind us not to rely too heavily on easy fixes in the campaign to save unborn lives. The lives of the people who want abortions—or who campaign against them—are more complicated than we might guess. The pro-life cause, then, should open itself to all this messiness—and the surprising people we might encounter along the way.
Daniel K. Williams is professor of history at the University of West Georgia. He is the author of Defenders of the Unborn: The Pro-Life Movement Before Roe v. Wade and The Politics of the Cross: A Christian Alternative to Partisanship.