book reviews

A review of The Family Roe: An American Story, by Joshua Prager

According to Amazon.com, I bought Joshua Prager’s extremely comprehensive and timely book, The Family Roe: An American Story on September 13, 2021. I have a feeling I decided to buy the book because my home state, Texas, had just passed horrifying legislation allowing private citizens to sue anyone who aids and abets a pregnant person in getting an abortion. It also effectively made abortions illegal after six weeks of gestation. Since most people don’t even know they’re pregnant at that point, it pretty much bans all abortions in the second largest state in the Union.

Although personally, I am past the point of having to worry a lot about pregnancy, and I live in Germany, where people are a hell of a lot more sensible and humane, I was, and still am, very upset about this law. I’m also upset that on June 24, 2022, the Supreme Court overturned Roe v Wade, the landmark Supreme Court decision from 1973 that made abortions legal across the United States. Thanks to the Trump packed Republican leaning Supreme Court, the legality of abortion will be decided by states, and at this writing, about half of the states have made laws restricting it or even outright banning it. Yes, I’m pissed about it for MANY reasons, most of which I’ve already blogged about extensively. I’m not going to get into that in this book review. But now that I know more about the origins of Roe v Wade, I’m even more outraged that so many people apparently value the unborn over the born.

Joshua Prager has written an extremely well-researched volume about the history of Roe v Wade and the people behind the case. Not only did Prager interview a lot of people for this book, he also presented many different angles to the ruling. He includes the story of Mildred Jefferson, a Black woman who served as the mouthpiece for the pro life movement for decades. Jefferson graduated from Texas College in three years, but was considered too young to enter medical school upon finishing college. She earned a master’s degree in biology from Tufts University, and was the first Black woman to enter and graduate from Harvard Medical School. She trained as a surgeon, but it was her anti-abortion work that put her on the map. Prager includes her fascinating story in this book.

Also covered are Texas lawyers, Linda Coffee and the late Sarah Weddington, both of whom were young women in 1973, looking to launch their careers in the age of sexism. The lawyers had little in common with each other. Weddington, who recently died, was a feminine blonde woman with the gift of gab and a good public face. She and Coffee had been law school classmates, although they weren’t friends. More introverted Linda Coffee was the one who found the plaintiff, wrote the initial petitions, and filed the lawsuit. After working on Roe v Wade, Coffee went on to work on bankruptcy cases, and later became very reclusive. She suffered from financial issues and her law license was suspended because she didn’t pay the necessary fees to keep it updated. She eventually quit practicing law, moved into a shack with her partner, and has a SNAP card (food stamps). Coffee’s story is covered in detail, and like the rest of the book, is quite juicy.

The two attorneys met Norma McCorvey, a woman who wanted to abort her third child, whom she had conceived out of wedlock. Norma came from a very poor family where a lot of the women were teen moms, and she was no exception. Besides the Roe baby, Norma had two other daughters: Melissa, who was being raised by her mother, Mary, and Jennifer, who was given up for adoption, and was raised by an Armenian anesthesiologist and his wife. The third baby, Shelley, was not aborted, as the lawsuit was not settled in time for Norma to have the abortion procedure. She was born June 2, 1970, given up for adoption, and raised in Washington State, where she was blissfully unaware of the notoriety surrounding her conception, until one fateful day in 1988, when she was contacted by reporters from the National Enquirer.

Prager brilliantly covers Norma McCorvey’s convoluted and hair raising story, but he also writes about her daughters, who eventually met each other as adults. Norma died a few years ago, and she was a bit of an opportunist and a grifter. She was a lesbian who could be bought by the evangelical and Catholic groups who wanted her to become a poster child for the pro life movement. McCorvey did, seemingly just for the money given to her by the church groups, who also wanted her to renounce her sexuality. Norma’s second child, Jennifer, is also a lesbian.

Also included is information about Planned Parenthood, eugenics, and Margaret Sanger, as well as the history of abortion. But what was especially impressive to me was the way Prager told Norma McCorvey’s story. She was not a particularly sympathetic character, and yet she was very fascinating. Prager calls her a “borderline” (meaning the personality disorder), but frankly I see a lot in common with narcissists I have known. She was strongly motivated by money and prestige, was disingenuous and disloyal to her friends and family members, and never missed a chance to get over on other people. Still, Prager manages to keep her human.

You might be thinking that this book must be long, since it covers so many angles. If you’re thinking that, you would be right. It’s taken me over a month to finish this book, the bulk of which is over 400 pages. There are a couple hundred pages of notes, as well as an extensive bibliography, author’s note, and photos. I worked pretty hard to get through this book, and at times, I wondered if I’d ever finish it. That being said, I can see that it was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize, as well as a few other prestigious awards. Having now read The Family Roe, I can see why it got such a good reception. It really is incredibly comprehensive, yet it manages to be a juicy page turner. My hat is off to Joshua Prager’s writing chops. He’s definitely got a gift.

I suppose if I had a criticism to make, it would be that this book was so long… and it was hard to keep every aspect of the stories straight. There were many “moving parts” in this tome, so reading it required diligence, discipline, and considerable patience. Maybe Prager could have tried to condense it a bit, or at least be more concise in some of the information he provides. However, I am very glad I made the effort to read The Family Roe. I think it was time well spent. This book will likely become required reading for some, as Roe v Wade will certainly be studied for years to come. I’m sure some readers, particularly “pro-life” males, might think Prager is biased toward abortion rights. I didn’t get that sense myself, but even if I did think that, I myself believe that abortion is important healthcare that must be preserved. It boggles my mind that some people lament the “loss” of millions of souls that were aborted. I wonder if they’ve considered what the world would be like if those abortions never happened and all of those people needed to be housed, clothed, fed, provided medical care and educated. I wonder if they’ve considered how many women, denied abortion, would have either died, suffered dire health or financial consequences, or been stuck in abusive relationships if they weren’t allowed to make that very personal and private decision for themselves.

The Family Roe is definitely worth a full five stars out of five. But, if you choose to read it, be prepared to be busy for awhile. It’s not a light or easy read, and it will probably keep you occupied for a good spell. On the other hand, I can’t read the way I used to, so maybe it’s just me, and my habit of falling asleep when I try to get into books these days. Anyway, now on to my next book, which will definitely NOT be about abortion.

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