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‘The Family Roe’ Ignores the Elephant

Joshua Prager’s tome on the woman who became Jane Roe reveals much about the lies the abortion movement tells itself.

Norma McCorvey, also known as Jane Roe, left, and lawyer Gloria Allred, right, raise their arms at a rally outside the US Supreme Courthouse.Mark Reinstein/Shutterstock

The Family Roe: An American Story, by Joshua Prager (W.W. Nortan and Company: 2021), 672 pages.

Joshua Prager researched The Family Roe: An American Story for 11 years, so he cannot have known that the book’s publication this September would align with the Supreme Court’s hearing of a case that could finally overturn the most contentious ruling of the past century. Prager’s brick-sized book is the most ambitious history of America’s abortion wars since Judy Thomas and James Risen’s 1999 Wrath of Angels, and it is packed with new revelations about figures from both sides of the debate.

Prager’s interest in the stories behind Roe v. Wade began when he discovered that the child at the center of the 1973 abortion ruling had not, in fact, been aborted. When Linda Coffee and Sarah Weddington met with the pregnant Norma McCorvey (soon to become Jane Roe), they needed a plaintiff. The lawyers knew that McCorvey wouldn’t be able to get an abortion—the case would take much longer than the pregnancy—but didn’t tell her so. The Roe baby was born and placed for adoption. As Prager puts it: “[H]er conception has precipitated the legal right to abort millions.”

Before I get to what I believe to be Prager’s fundamental failure, I’ll begin by noting the magnitude of his accomplishment. The Family Roe is an extraordinary work of journalism, informed by both Prager’s personal relationship with McCorvey, his acquisition of her papers from Connie Gonzalez, McCorvey’s lesbian partner, and his relentless pursuit of the three girls that McCorvey gave up for adoption. Prager publicly names, for the first time, the baby at the center of Roe v. Wade: Shelley Lynn Thornton. He not only tracked down Norma’s daughters; he introduced them to each other and witnessed their meeting. Prager became as much a catalyst for the second half of the story as a reporter covering it.

The details of the relationship between the three sisters and their volatile mother—who publicly switched sides from the pro-choice camp to the pro-life movement but (according to Prager) retained a lifelong ambivalence about early-term abortion—are so personal I’m shocked the women allowed them to be published. Each daughter had a fraught relationship with Norma, who frequently exploded at those closest to her. Shelley spoke with her by phone and was told by Norma that she should be grateful she hadn’t been aborted, and the two never met. Roe was always in the way. Shelley recognized that to many, she was the incarnation of what the abortion debate was all about.

All three daughters say they are pro-choice, but their language betrays the reality of abortion. Melissa, the oldest daughter, told Prager that: “I’ve always been pro-choice. Not that I want to kill anybody.” Jennifer, the second daughter, speculated that Shelley struggled with the idea of meeting Norma because she didn’t know what to ask: “Why the f— did you want to kill me?” Norma had rejected them all, and the torment of that fact lasted a lifetime. Norma herself understood why Shelley didn’t want to meet her, musing aloud to one reporter: “How could you possibly talk to someone who wanted to abort you?” If abortion had been legal earlier, Melissa observed just after Norma’s passing, “I wouldn’t have had my sisters.”

Despite his pro-choice beliefs, Prager obviously strives for honesty and fairness. His portrait of Dr. Mildred Jefferson, the first black female Harvard Medical School graduate and the activist responsible for Ronald Reagan’s pro-life conversion, is sympathetic despite some of the searing details he reveals. He also notes that, contrary to the assertions of the abortion movement, the majority of pro-lifers were women—mothers who “viewed abortion as anathema to her being.”

But Prager’s fundamental failure is in assuming that the abortion debate is about pro-life activists and pro-choice activists, when in fact it is about babies in the womb. Throughout The Family Roe, Prager assumes the premises of the abortion movement, making this a fundamentally pro-abortion book despite his obvious attempts at neutrality and his largely successful attempts at fairness.

For a writer with a flair for dramatic language, Prager bends over backwards to avoid describing abortion in accurate terms. He describes “disarticulating” the pre-born baby rather than “dismembering.” He refers to “fragments of fetus” rather than arms, legs, and heads. He discusses abortionists injecting fetuses to bring on cardiac arrest in terms so clinical one might almost miss the fact that these doctors are inducing heart attacks in pre-term infants in order to kill them—and that if this is not successful, there is, in late-term abortions, the “additional horrible risk…that the attempted abortion would result in a live birth,” as Prager puts it.

There are other give-away phrases, as well. Prager constantly refers to abortion as “safe,” which once again assumes that we are talking about one patient rather than two. The baby’s safety is presumed irrelevant and the premise of the abortion movement accepted as fact. He credulously quotes the unscientific and delusional assertion of late-term abortionist Curtis Boyd—who has personally aborted 250,000 babies over a half-century—stating that if the child never breathes outside the womb, “it was never alive.” Most egregiously, he calls the practice of retrieving dead babies from clinic dumpsters and burying them “weaponizing the fetus” and claims that these funerals “transformed remains into dead babies.” This is Pravda-level pro-abortion propaganda, and it brutally exposes Prager’s bias.

At one point, Prager characterizes a brief opposing Roe as seeking to “humanize the fetus,” assuming, of course, that the fetus needs humanizing (she is, after all, a human fetus.) The entire point of the pro-life movement’s case is that a human fetus doesn’t need humanizing—she simply needs her humanity to be recognized. On a single page, Prager notes that a pro-lifer called a fetus a “baby” as if it were a propaganda term, and then observed in the next paragraph that the Journal of the American Medical Association reported that “11% of babies born before 24 weeks survived.” In short, they are fetuses when we kill them, and babies when we do not. That isn’t science. It’s trash ideology.

Prager spends hundreds of pages detailing the abortion debate while missing the fact that it isn’t about Mildred Jefferson or Norma McCorvey or Curtis Boyd. It is about the babies. The Roe baby all grown up is a glimpse at a single woman who would not exist if abortion had been legal. Shelley is one of millions, and she is not a pro-life gimmick. She is a person. Was she a person when Norma wanted to abort her? That is the question, and it is one that Prager steadfastly ignores despite the thoroughness of his research into the question that has riven America for decades.

Norma McCorvey was haunted throughout her life by empty playgrounds, both because of the millions that had been aborted due to Roe v. Wade and because they reminded her of the three little girls she’d given up. In The Family Roe, Prager grapples with Norma, the girls, and the activists and abortionists on the opposing sides of the debate. To complete the picture, he should have grappled with the silence of the playgrounds and the children who filled dumpsters across America. He might have interviewed abortions survivors such as Gianna Jessen, Melissa Ohden, Claire Culwell, and others. We have never heard the voices of the missing millions, but we must try—because they were, so very briefly, with us once—and we killed them. Perhaps, in the year to come, we will finally put an end to the ruling that legalized their deaths: Roe v. Wade.

Jonathon Van Maren is a public speaker, writer, and pro-life activist. His commentary has appeared in National Review, The European Conservative, the National Post, and elsewhere. Jonathon is the author of The Culture War and Seeing Is Believing: Why Our Culture Must Face the Victims of Abortion as well as the co-author with Blaise Alleyne of A Guide to Discussing Assisted Suicide.

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