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Monday, January 23, 2023

January 23, 2023: AbortionStudying: Roe v. Wade

[On January 22, 1973, the Supreme Court released the Roe v. Wade decision. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy that case and a handful of other histories and stories of abortion in the U.S., leading up to a weekend post on the current laws and debates.]

On the compelling & telling American stories of four key Roe v. Wade figures.

1)      Sarah Weddington and Linda Coffee: The two attorneys who brought Roe v. Wade to the Supreme Court (after first taking and arguing the case in their home state of Texas) were both under 30 years old when they did so. I’ve written both in this space and my book Of Thee I Sing about the vital role that legal organizations like the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund and MALDEF have played in advancing the cause of civil rights and equality in the United States throughout the 20th century. But at the same time, much of that work was done by incredibly courageous individual lawyers, attorneys who were quite often very early in their careers (perhaps because they hadn’t become more conservative or cynical in their legal ideas or ambitions yet)—and who, in the case of Weddington and Coffee, had no such communal or institutional organization behind or supporting them, just the courage of their convictions.  

2)      Henry Wade: It’s quite something that the Texas District Attorney who prosecuted Jack Ruby for murdering Lee Harvey Oswald isn’t best known for that shocking 20th century moment and case, but there’s no doubt that Henry Wade will first and forever be tied to the case that bears his name. The Innocence Project of Texas might argue differently, however—that legal activist organization is focused on more than 250 cases that Wade prosecuted in his three and a half decades as DA, noting that Wade’s policy of “convict at all costs” has already been revealed through DNA evidence to have railroaded nearly twenty innocent people. To be clear, Wade didn’t choose to prosecute Roe v. Wade—that case was brought by Weddington and Coffee, and it seems that Wade was relatively indifferent to the eventual outcome. But I think it’s important to remember that women who had abortions in 1970 Texas were perceived and treated as criminals just as much as any of those pursued by Wade’s office—and as wrongly as it seems many of them were.

3)      Norma McCorvey: As that hyperlinked NPR piece traces, and as has become relatively common knowledge in recent years, the specific such woman who became “Jane Roe” had a very complicated and evolving relationship to the issue of abortion. The choice of McCorvey by Weddington and Coffee was also complicated, and echoes to a degree the way in which Rosa Parks became the face of the Montgomery bus boycott—McCorvey was a married woman with two children and was pregnant for a third time in 1969 (a pregnancy she did not want to carry to term but was forced to), and thus a living repudiation of certain narrow stereotypes about women who sought out abortions. What each of those details truly reminds us, of course, is that every woman to whom abortion laws applies—which is every woman—has an individual identity and story that can’t be reduced to one frame, which I would argue is precisely the goal of protecting each individual’s right to make their own decisions about reproduction, health, family, and more.

Next AbortionStudying tomorrow,


PS. What do you think?

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