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Author Tells The Story Of The Family At The Center Of Landmark Case 'Roe V. Wade'


The Texas law that severely restricts access to abortion in that state has set off a furious round of public debate and private legal strategizing. But it is only the latest effort in a decades-long battle to overturn the landmark Supreme Court case legalizing most abortions, Roe v. Wade. That case has been a touchstone for both sides of the abortion issue since it was delivered nearly 50 years ago, and yet for all the attention Roe v. Wade has received over the years, some facts about the case remain obscure to much of the public, such as the fact that the pregnancy at the heart of the legal dispute did not end with an abortion. A baby girl was born, and few knew who or where she was. And after a series of disturbing encounters, she preferred to keep it that way. But now she's given journalist and author Joshua Prager permission to reveal her identity in his new book "The Family Roe: An American Story," and Joshua Prager is with us now.

Mr. Prager, welcome. Thank you so much for talking to us.

JOSHUA PRAGER: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So you've met her, and you tell her story now. Who is she?

PRAGER: So her name is Shelley Lynn Thornton. She was born in June of 1970, a few months after Norma McCorvey filed Roe and a few years before the case was decided. She was a toddler when Roe was decided in January of 1973. She was raised by a woman and a man who soon thereafter separated because of a drinking problem he had, and she was growing up as a pretty basic teenager, as she put it. She said she cared about dating and buying nice shoes and things like that when, all of a sudden, her life changed a few days before her 19th birthday because a tabloid sent an investigator to find her and then told her that they were going to publish their story, whether she wanted them to or not.

They did not name her, but all of a sudden, her life had a before and an after. And she was now tied to Roe and to Norma. She had grown up in a home that was against abortion, and she also now felt that she was carrying an enormous secret - that, as she put it, whenever she met someone, they didn't quite know exactly who she was.

MARTIN: So what about Norma McCorvey? I mean, her - Shelley's mother - I mean, she is such a complicated figure. How do you even think about Norma McCorvey?

PRAGER: Well, Norma was a very complicated person. Norma was conflicted about abortion. On the one hand, you know, she felt that a woman ought to have the right to choose. On the other hand, she was raised in a very religious home, and she was told that this is absolutely forbidden. And even as she was proud, as the years went by, of her role in Roe, she was ambivalent about it. And even a greater reason why she then left the pro-choice for the pro-life movement was that she didn't feel that she had a seat at the table in the pro-choice movement.

She wasn't exactly the greatest representation for her movement. They, you know - she was an unstable and unreliable witness. She lied all the time, and she wasn't often invited to the press conferences and the book parties and the rallies, and she became - she came to resent that. But at the end of her life, she really felt that she didn't have a place in either movement, and she pushed it all away. And she wanted it known that she had never had an abortion. She wanted everyone to know that she'd actually had three children.

MARTIN: Well, the other aspect of this story - I mean, you described these sort of big feelings and particularly how so many women have been - how can we put this? - captive of forces beyond their choice and control, right? But one of the points you make in the book is that this kind of extended to Shelley. There was this ongoing effort to use her...


MARTIN: ...For various people's purposes, including her mother's purposes.

PRAGER: Absolutely.

MARTIN: And how does she think about that now?

PRAGER: So she came to realize a few days before she was 19, when she was alerted to who her biological mother was, that people saw her as a symbol. It was The National Enquirer that sort of tracked her down, and the investigator and the reporter said, you know, the pro-life community wants to show you off as a happy, living, healthy individual. And she wanted no part of that. She was actually sort of conflicted herself, much like her biological mother. She had an unwanted pregnancy herself a few years later, before she was married, and she felt that abortion, as she put it, was not part of who I am. And she didn't have an abortion. She believed that a woman should have the right to choose.

So that experience sort of deepened her thinking on it, as one would imagine it would. And most importantly, though, she wanted no part, as I say, of what the pro-life saw in her, this symbol as somebody who embodied their argument against abortion, someone who is the incarnation of that argument. If anything, she told me, she represented what it is to be born unwanted. Of course, while there are tens of millions of children who are, sadly, born unwanted, only her conception had led to Roe, and so she carried a burden that was really unique.

MARTIN: You call it "An American Story." The title of your book is "The Family Roe: An American Story." Why do you say that?

PRAGER: Well, the family really refers here to two different families. There's the family that Norma had - Norma - a broken family, Norma and the three children she relinquished to adoption. But then there's also the much larger family, as I see it - the tens of millions of people who are on either side of this issue. And what's fascinating to me is that Norma was the only thing that the pro-choice and the pro-life sort of had in common because she'd started off on one side and gone to the other. And what I tried to do was tell the larger story through the smaller story.

And as I say, you know, Norma's family, her immediate family, was sort of rent and riven by the incompatibility, as she saw it, of sex and religion. And that is the exact same thing, in my mind, that has brought America apart, pulled America apart on this issue. And so by humanizing the issue, by enabling people to look at abortion not through politics but people, I tried to sort of shine a light on how America got to this sad point.

MARTIN: Well, you know, the timing is remarkable. I mean, after 10 years of working on this project, your book arrives at the very moment that the Supreme Court will soon hear a case that may well determine the fate of Roe. And I can't help but ask if you feel comfortable saying what is - does Shelley and perhaps even her sisters, Norma McCorvey's daughter - does she have thoughts about that?

PRAGER: They do. All three of Norma's daughters spoke to me about the fact that they do believe in a woman's right to choose, even if they themselves had never felt comfortable to have an abortion. And it's not only that Shelley does believe that abortion ought to be legal. She also wants people to know, as she puts it, that she is not a symbol for one side of this issue. She is her own person distinct and apart from Roe and abortion.

MARTIN: That was Joshua Prager, author of "The Family Roe: An American Story." You can read an excerpt from the book in The Atlantic. Joshua Prager, thank you so much for joining us.

PRAGER: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.