Roe v. Wade's Overturning: A Look at the Landmark 1973 Case, and Why Experts Say What Comes Next Matters Most

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“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. 

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.

The decision came as a shock to some, but not all, especially those especially familiar with Roe v. Wade, which many in conservative circles had wanted to dismantle from the moment the decision came down nearly half a century ago. 

But what comes next, experts say, will be determined in the ballot box, and it matters. 

“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. 

The Case and the People Behind Roe v. Wade

In early 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 7-2 that abortion would be made legal in all 50 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."

The real name of "Jane Roe" was Norma McCorvey. 

McCorvey was born in 1947 in Louisiana. She was working as a waitress in a Dallas gay bar when she became pregnant for the third time in 1969. She was 22. 

She had surrendered her parental rights for the children from her first two pregnancies. McCorvey wanted to go a different route in her third pregnancy, Prager says.  

“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's really what's going on today. It's about money and it's about where you are. If I have money and if I'm born in this state, I can get an abortion. If I don't have money and I'm born in that state, I can't. And that is simply not fair. And that's exactly the exact issue that faced Norma in 1970, is what millions and millions of women are facing nowadays today."

The issue was personal to Weddington as well, who Prager says had to travel to Mexico to obtain an abortion herself, and unlike McCorvey, had the means to do so. "That also cost money and Norma didn't have that money.”

McCorvey was not present as her attorneys argued on her behalf against Henry Wade, the Dallas District Attorney. Due to the length of the trials, her pregnancy ended in childbirth.

“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 takes longer than nine months. Therefore, she had been forced to have the child and place it for adoption,” Prager says.

Following the Roe decision, the lives of those connected to the case changed dramatically.

Weddington went on to become the White House director of public affairs 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. She also served as a speaker and adjunct professor at the University of Texas at Austin until 2012. She died in 2021 at 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, led a different and less distinguished path following the Supreme Court decision, he says.

"Linda hated the spotlight as much as Sarah loved it, and she was very happy to sort of seed her place," he says. "But it was very depressing because Sarah knew this, and she took advantage of that fact. And she basically cut Linda from the story. 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 found Coffee living in East Texas while working on his 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 was living in a house with no heat. She was living on food stamps, this unbelievably important person,” he says.

In 2023, Coffee auctioned off her archive. Conservative pundit Glen Beck bought it for $600,000.

Coffee did not respond to Inside Edition Digital’s multiple requests an interview.

After the Supreme Court decided in favor of Roe, McCorvey decided to go public. She announced to the world who she was, but her newfound attention brought on more than she bargained for.

“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 speak about the pro-choice platform and the way they would want to. She wasn't educated."

Prager got to know McCorvey over the course of four years. A "real character," McCorvey was a flawed individual whose life was filled with ups and downs. She struggled with drug addiction, was abused for being gay and at times throughout her life dealt drugs and was a sex worker, Prager says. 

"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.”

Like the issue of abortion itself, McCorvey became a politicized figure.

“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 met two of her three biological children later in her life. In 1989, she appeared on the “Today” show and declared publicly that she wanted to meet Baby Roe. After McCorvey's morning show appearance, a journalist for the National Enquirer went on to track down the child at the heart of the case.  

"Baby Roe" was a teenager at the time. Shelley Lynn Thornton, who lived near Seattle, was at first excited to meet her birth mother, Prager says. But as attention on her and her birth mother mounted, Thornton found herself becoming more dejected at the idea of meeting McCorvey, Prager says.

“Norma really was not particularly interested in a relationship [with Baby Roe]. She really just wanted that notoriety, that publicity,” Prager says.

The pair instead spoke on the phone, During the conversations, McCorvey invited Thornton to Texas to meet. But Thornton, who was raised by adoptive parents in a strict religious house that opposed abortion, was especially uncomfortable with her birth mother's sexual orientation, Prager says. The pair argued and stopped speaking. 

It wasn't until Prager began working on his book about McCorvey, at the end of McCorvey's life, that Thornton reconsidered speaking with her biological mother again.  

“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 goes, wondering if she's going to, but she ultimately decides not to. It was too painful,” he says.

McCorvey never met Thornton but they did speak on the phone, Prager says.

Thornton did speak with Prager, who put her in touch with her two 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 was with McCorvey when she died of heart failure in February 2017. Her legacy is a complicated one and one, like the issue of abortion itself, that serves as a political Rorschach test of sorts, for the person examining 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 Came After the Overturning of Roe v. Wade and What May Come Next 

When Roe was overturned a year ago, all three of McCorvey’s children publicly stated they were pro-choice, Prager says. The most vocal of the three was Thornton.

“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 believe that the decision to have an abortion is a private, medical choice that should be between a woman, her family, and her doctor. We have lived in times of uncertainty and insecurity before, but to have such a fundamental right taken away and this ruling be overturned concerns me of what lies ahead."

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 also spoke out in the wake of the Dobbs decision. 

"It is a purely political response driven by a minority of Americans, and does not represent the majority of Americans," she said in a statement to CNN.

"But more than this, the decision destroys dignity of all American women, and even minors," Coffee continued. "Dignity is a human experience; the U.S. Supreme Court has destroyed human dignity with their thoughtless political decision. 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.

Neither Ziegler nor Prager say they were surprised that Roe was overturned.

“The answer in part is political polarization and gerrymandering. The U.S. has states that are very conservative and also has states that are very gerrymandered, but it's also that it's 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 also say they would not be surprised to see the protections put in place when Planned Parenthood v. Casey and Roe v. Wade were initially decided eventually become law once again. 

“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.”

Those unhappy with the law of the land have to do their part to see the laws change, Ziegler says, as the issue of abortion access and by extension, women's rights, are a reflection of the health of the country as a whole.

"Our democracy is still fairly vibrant, but there are aspects of it that are unhealthy," she says. “I think it is that canary in the coal mine, it is always sort of a sign of how healthy the democracy is. I think it's always been a fight about what we mean by equality, and it's also been a fight about what kind of democracy we want to have. And so while abortion as abortion is a really important issue, I think the fight over it has become about much more than that.”

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