On June 24, 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that the constitutional right to abortion no longer existed.
The decision made in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization overruled Planned Parenthood v. Casey and Roe v. Wade and returned to the states the power to regulate any aspect of abortion not protected by federal law and not a protected right under the Constitution.
Some people were shocked by the ruling, while others did not. This was especially true for those who are familiar with Roe V. Wade. Many conservatives wanted it overturned from the time the case came to be, nearly 50 years ago.
The next steps will be decided by the voters, say experts, and that is important.
“If you’re a young person and you’re worried about things like the democracy and voting rights, you have to care about this,” reproduction politics and conservatism expert Mary Ziegler tells Inside Edition Digital.
Roe V. Wade: The People and Case Behind the Case
Early in 1973, 7-2 ruled the U.S. Supreme Court that abortion will be legalized across all 50 U.S. states.
Prior to the landmark decision, how involved states were in a woman’s decision to get a legal abortion “how far along the pregnancy was,” Josh Prager, author of “The Family Roe: An American Story,” tells Inside Edition Digital.
The attorneys who argued the case, Linda Coffee and Sarah Weddington, wanted to challenge the laws prohibiting legal abortion, but to do so, they needed to find someone to represent in such a suit, Prager says.
“That’s hard to do because you have to find someone who’s willing to sort of take the heat if her name becomes public,” Prager says. “They gave her a pseudonym.”
Jane Roe’s real name was Norma McCorvey.
McCorvey, born 1947 in Louisiana. In 1969, she was working in Dallas as a gay bar waitress when her third pregnancy occurred. She was only 22.
She gave up her parental rights to the children born from her two first pregnancies. Prager says McCorvey decided to take a different path with her third pregnancy.
“Having a child and placing it for adoption is a very strenuous thing, and she wanted to have an abortion, but she was not allowed” in the state in which she lived, Prager says. She also “could not afford to fly to where abortion was legal,” Prager says.
McCorvey’s circumstances made her a good fit as a client for Coffee and Weddington, who needed in their client, “not only a person who would sort of be up for the potential public cost of having your name out there, but also a person who couldn’t afford (to obtain an abortion),” he says.
“Norma sort of embodied the situation” many others found themselves in then, and now, Prager says.
“It was geography, where she was born, and it was finances and class… that she couldn’t afford it, that really determined her lot in life,” he says. And that is exactly what happens today. Money and where you live are the main factors. You can have an abortion if you’re born in a certain state and you are rich. However, if I was born there and didn’t earn money I couldn’t. That’s just plain unfair. It’s the same issue as Norma faced in 1970 and what millions of other women today face.
Weddington was also personally affected by the issue. According to Prager, Weddington had to go to Mexico herself to get an abortion, but unlike McCorvey she had the financial means to make this happen. “That also cost money and Norma didn’t have that money.”
McCorvey did not attend when her attorneys spoke on her behalf before Henry Wade, Dallas’ District attorney. Her pregnancy ended due to the long trials.
“Even though she won her case, even though Roe v. Wade went her way, she was not able to have the abortion she sought because the case took longer than the gestation of a baby, and it almost always does, a big Supreme Court case. It can take more than nine-months. Therefore, she had been forced to have the child and place it for adoption,” Prager says.
After the Roe ruling, life for those involved in the case has changed drastically.
Weddington became the director of Public Affairs at the White House under President Jimmy Carter. After her time in Washington, D.C. was through, she became a lecturer at Texas Woman’s University, where she worked until 1990. Her other roles included adjunct professor and speaker at University of Texas at Austin, where she worked until 2012. In 2021, she died at the age of 76.
“Sarah Weddington became very famous because she argued Roe in front of the Supreme Court when she was just 26 years old. They argued it twice actually,” Prager says. Coffee has taken a more mediocre path since the Supreme Court ruling, says Prager.
He says, “Linda was happy to seed Sarah’s place because she hated being in the spotlight just as much as Sarah did.” Sarah took advantage because she knew that Linda hated the spotlight. She basically removed Linda from the narrative. She told everyone that she did this herself, when in fact, it was actually Linda who was the real sort of brains behind the initial suit and a remarkable, important historic woman.”
Prager came across Coffee while working on the book. She was living with her partner in what he says was “abject poverty.”
“Not only had she been forgotten, but she’d been neglected. She lived in a cold house. She was living on food stamps, this unbelievably important person,” he says.
Coffee will auction off her archives in 2023. Glen Beck, conservative commentator and media personality, paid $600,000.
Coffee did not respond to Inside Edition Digital’s multiple requests an interview.
McCorvey went public when the Supreme Court ruled Roe in her favor. McCorvey announced her identity to the public, but she received more attention than she expected.
“A lot of people on the pro-choice side, they were very frustrated because she wasn’t in some ways the perfect plaintiff,” Prager says. She didn’t talk about pro-choice and how they wanted to. “She wasn’t well-educated.”
Prager spent four years getting to know McCorvey. McCorvey had many ups and lows in her life. She was “a real character.” Prager said that she struggled to overcome drug addictions, suffered abuse because of her sexual orientation, and dealt drugs or worked in sex throughout most of her adult life.
“She cared less at the time about the movement as really just having an abortion herself,” Prager says. “She didn’t give a s*** about the movement that she represented. She didn’t want to represent the movement.”
McCorvey, like the abortion issue itself, became politicized.
“She starts off on the pro-choice side, she becomes sort of alienated by the pro-choice. They’re not interested in her because she’s uneducated; (it’s) very depressing,” he says. “She goes over to the pro-life side and they baptize her in a Texas swimming pool while the cameras are rolling.
“She lied endlessly about her positions on abortion,” he continues. “She would say what people paid her to say on both sides.”
McCorvey has met two of the three children she was born with later in life. In 1989, she appeared on the “Today” show and declared publicly that she wanted to meet Baby Roe. McCorvey appeared on the morning show in 1989. A journalist from the National Enquirer then tracked down Baby Roe.
Baby Roe was only a teenager when she met her birth mother. Shelley Lynn Thornton, who lived near Seattle, was at first excited to meet her birth mother, Prager says. Prager says Thornton became less excited about meeting McCorvey as more attention was focused on her.
“Norma really was not particularly interested in a relationship [with Baby Roe]. She really just wanted that notoriety, that publicity,” Prager says.
McCorvey then invited Thornton to Texas for their meeting. Prager reports that Thornton, raised by her adoptive parents, in a religious home against abortion, felt uncomfortable because of the sexual orientation of her birth mother. They argued, and then stopped talking.
Thornton didn’t reconsider speaking to her mother until Prager, who was working on a book about McCorvey at the very end of McCorvey’s life, began writing.
“As Norma is dying, Shelley is grappling with whether she’s going to visit Norma at her deathbed, back and forth, back and forth. She wonders if she is going, but ultimately she decides against it. It was too painful,” he says.
Prager claims that McCorvey and Thornton never met, but did talk on the telephone.
Thornton spoke with Prager who connected her with two of her other biological siblings.
Prager got Thornton’s side of the story for the first time for his book and put her in touch with her two maternal siblings. And despite having been “born with this enormous burden,” Thornton has lead as normal a life as possible, Prager says.
Prager died in the same room as McCorvey, who passed away from heart failure on February 17, 2017. The legacy of McCorvey is complex and, much like abortion, can serve as a kind of political Rorschach Test for anyone who looks at it.
“Roe had become a symbol of something for a lot of people, young people as well as old people, that was way bigger than the actual Supreme Court’s decision,” says Ziegler, an American legal historian and the Martin Luther King Jr. professor of law at the University of California, Davis School of Law.
What Happened After Roe V. Wade Was Overturned and What Could Come Next
When Roe was overturned a year ago, all three of McCorvey’s children publicly stated they were pro-choice, Prager says. Thornton, the loudest of the trio, was most active.
“Too many times has a woman’s choice, voice, and individual freedom been decided for her by others. Being that I am bound to the center of Roe v. Wade, I have a unique perspective on this matter specifically,” Thornton said in a statement to ABC News following the Dobbs ruling. “I think that the decision of whether to have an abort should be made privately, by a doctor, a woman’s family and her physician. I am concerned about the uncertain future. We’ve lived through times of uncertainty, and we have seen this right taken from women.
Prager found Thornton’s statement “gratifying,” saying, “not only had she sort of stepped out of the shadows, but she even was using her notoriety, her fame as the ‘Roe baby,’ to sort of weigh in on this debate. And that was very gratifying for me.”
Coffee has also spoken out following the Dobbs Decision.
In a CNN statement, she stated that “it is a political response driven solely by a minority of Americans. It does not reflect the majority of Americans.”
Coffee added, “But this is not all. The decision also destroys the dignity and respect of American women, including minors.” The U.S. Supreme Court’s thoughtless decision has rendered human dignity a thing of the past. It is a sad day for Americans.”
Abortion had always been a divisive subject in the U.S., but the Dobbs decision seemed to open the doors to argue aspects of the issue that had never before been debated to such an extent.
“It used to be that people just disagreed about the morality of abortion, but now people also disagree about what abortion actually is…sort of the facts of abortion,” Ziegler says.
Ziegler or Prager did not express surprise that Roe had been overturned.
“The answer in part is political polarization and gerrymandering. In the U.S., there are both conservative states and states with a high degree of gerrymandering. However, it is deliberate. So the anti-abortion movement has been working on things like making it hard to vote,” Ziegler says.
“I think there’s been a deliberate effort to change the ground rules of democracy to make it easier to ban abortion, in part because people in the movement think that banning abortion is more important, or from their standpoint, protecting life of the unborn is more important than what a majority of voters actually want,” she says.
Both say that they are not surprised if protections originally put in place by the initial decisions of Planned Parenthood Casey and Roe V. Wade become law.
“As crazily as abortion has swung over these 50 years…There has been an unbelievable sort of consistency to the American middle ground for 50 years,” Prager says. “A majority of Americans have said that they believe abortion ought to be legal, but only roughly through the first trimester of pregnancy. That’s remarkable, and it takes a lot of time, but almost always our Supreme Court comes to reflect the people that they represent.”
Ziegler argues that anyone unhappy with existing laws should do something to make them change. Women’s rights and abortion are both a reflection on the overall health of a country.
She says, “Our democracy still has a lot of life in it. But there are some unhealthy aspects to it.” “I think it is that canary in the coal mine, it is always sort of a sign of how healthy the democracy is. The fight has always revolved around what equality means, but also what type of democratic system we would like to see. And so while abortion as abortion is a really important issue, I think the fight over it has become about much more than that.”