The Family Roe: An American Story (Hardcover)
One of NPR's Best Books of 2021
A New York Times Notable Book of 2021
One of TIME's 100 Must-Read Books of 2021
A masterpiece of reporting on the Supreme Court’s most divisive case, Roe v. Wade, and the unknown lives at its heart.
Despite her famous pseudonym, “Jane Roe,” no one knows the truth about Norma McCorvey (1947–2017), whose unwanted pregnancy in 1969 opened a great fracture in American life. Journalist Joshua Prager spent hundreds of hours with Norma, discovered her personal papers—a previously unseen trove—and witnessed her final moments. The Family Roe presents her life in full. Propelled by the crosscurrents of sex and religion, gender and class, it is a life that tells the story of abortion in America.
Prager begins that story on the banks of Louisiana’s Atchafalaya River where Norma was born, and where unplanned pregnancies upended generations of her forebears. A pregnancy then upended Norma’s life too, and the Dallas waitress became Jane Roe.
Drawing on a decade of research, Prager reveals the woman behind the pseudonym, writing in novelistic detail of her unknown life from her time as a sex worker in Dallas, to her private thoughts on family and abortion, to her dealings with feminist and Christian leaders, to the three daughters she placed for adoption.
Prager found those women, including the youngest—Baby Roe—now fifty years old. She shares her story in The Family Roe for the first time, from her tortured interactions with her birth mother, to her emotional first meeting with her sisters, to the burden that was uniquely hers from conception.
The Family Roe abounds in such revelations—not only about Norma and her children but about the broader “family” connected to the case. Prager tells the stories of activists and bystanders alike whose lives intertwined with Roe. In particular, he introduces three figures as important as they are unknown: feminist lawyer Linda Coffee, who filed the original Texas lawsuit yet now lives in obscurity; Curtis Boyd, a former fundamentalist Christian, today a leading provider of third-trimester abortions; and Mildred Jefferson, the first black female Harvard Medical School graduate, who became a pro-life leader with great secrets.
An epic work spanning fifty years of American history, The Family Roe will change the way you think about our enduring American divide: the right to choose or the right to life.
About the Author
Joshua Prager has written for the Atlantic, Vanity Fair, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal. A former Nieman Fellow at Harvard, and Fulbright Distinguished Chair, he is the author of The Echoing Green (a Washington Post Best Book of the Year) and 100 Years (with Milton Glaser). He lives in New Jersey with his wife and two daughters.
The scope is sweeping, the writing is beautiful. It’s an epic story worthy of the impact this one case has had on the American psyche.
— Michel Martin - NPR
Mr. Prager’s book is stupendous, a masterwork of reporting…. If you want to understand Roe more deeply before the coming decision, read it.
— Peggy Noonan - Wall Street Journal
Prodigiously researched, richly detailed, sensitively told.…like a fairy tale set in working-class America.
— Margaret Talbot - The New Yorker
[A]n honest glimpse into the American soul...a sweeping, granular, century-deep case for women’s sovereignty over themselves.
— Anand Giridharadas - New York Times Book Review
Through rigorous reporting and sensitive portrayals, Prager animates Roe’s leading and supporting figures and remakes our understanding of them....interweaving in-depth biographical sketches to transform Roe from an abstract legal doctrine into an epic family saga.
— Mindy Jane Roseman - Washington Post
The Family Roe is a work of deep empathy without sentimentality, a recovery of fact over myth, a quintessentially American story.
— Linda Greenhouse, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and Joseph M. Goldstein Lecturer in Law at Yale Law School
A prizeworthy masterpiece of poignant history, an emotionally compelling account of the profound issues that surround reproductive choice.
— David J. Garrow, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Liberty and Sexuality
Joshua Prager has humanized the story of how abortion came to be legalized in the United States— and how it came to shape the American culture wars…. The book reads like detective fiction.
— Andrew Solomon, National Book Award–winning author of Far From the Tree
Journalist Joshua Prager offers a masterclass in reporting in his book The Family Roe, which weaves concentric rings of activists and Christian fundamentalists, lawyers and Harvard Medical School graduates—groups called to action in the fiery debates over the case—to reveal a rich tapestry of American life and values in the 20th-century.
Prager’s book does more than educate the reader on legal history; it shows how one changes over a lifetime. It is a study of the human experience…. Prager reminds the reader that stances on abortion can be as fluid and complex as the generations-long battle over it. He offers no hint of his own political standing and ultimately leaves his complete history of Roe open to every reader.
— Los Angeles Review of Books
A stunning read.
— D Magazine
Prager’s book is not just a biography but also political history…. Prager excels in revealing the messy, complicated people at the heart of America’s abortion fight; their motives, he seems to say, are much more tangled than any of them would likely admit…. The Family Roe is a fascinating portrait of a woman whose life was shaped by the abortion debate.
— The New Republic
The Family Roe: An American Story is a masterpiece of journalistic research…. Prager challenges readers’ presuppositions and refuses to fit the book’s messy stories into clear moral categories. Things (and people) are not always what they seem. Nearly all the people profiled in this book carry deep secrets that they refuse to reveal to others—but that Prager, as a master journalist, repeatedly succeeds in uncovering.
— Daniel K. Williams - Christianity Today