The Atlantic Daily: The Roe v. Wade Baby Tells Her Story

By Caroline Mimbs Nyce
The Atlantic
Shelley Lynn Thornton, photographed in Tucson this summer. Her conception, in 1969, led to the lawsuit that ultimately produced 'Roe v. Wade.'
Tracy Nguyen for The Atlantic

In 1973, American women won the constitutional right to abortion through Roe v. Wade. But the Supreme Court’s ruling did not come in time for its anonymous plaintiff to get the procedure she sought. Instead, Norma McCorvey (who later went public with her story) gave birth and put her child up for adoption.

Now that child, a 51-year-old mother of three, is speaking out for the first time about what it’s like to have one’s very existence deeply entangled in the abortion politics of this country.

Her name is Shelley.

Ten years ago, she began quietly telling her life story to the journalist Joshua Prager, who shares it exclusively in an Atlantic essay today.

Shelley didn’t know about her connection to the Roe case until her late teens, when a researcher and a reporter from the National Enquirer contacted her. Her birth mother, Norma, was a complicated woman interested in publicity. The Enquirer did not use Shelley’s name in its story; Shelley wanted her link to the case kept secret. But “secrets and lies,” she eventually told Joshua, “are, like, the two worst things in the whole world.”

Today, the case tied to her conception is being tested.

Last week, a conservative Supreme Court majority allowed a restrictive new abortion law to take effect in Texas—perhaps signaling that the Court is ready to defang or overturn the 1973 ruling entirely. The Justice Department announced today that it is suing Texas over the law. A major challenge to Roe sits on the Court’s docket for next term, which begins in October.

In the days to come, the justices, and the public, will re-litigate the precedent set by Roe v. Wade.

Ever since the Enquirer published its story on “the Roe baby,” anti-abortion-rights activists have claimed her as a metaphor for their cause. But Shelley herself isn’t so sure.

“From Shelley’s perspective, it was clear that if she … could be said to represent anything, it was not the sanctity of life but the difficulty of being born unwanted,” Joshua writes.

Learn more about Shelley, Norma, and the other people at the center of the Roe case by reading Joshua’s piece.

President Joe Biden walking away from the camera
Drew Angerer / Getty

The rest of the news in three sentences:

(1) President Joe Biden is stepping up on vaccine mandates, requiring shots for federal employees and asking the Labor Department to mandate them for anyone who works for a private business with more than 100 people on staff. (2) A commercial plane carrying about 200 people, including Americans, departed Afghanistan today. (3) Unemployment claims hit a pandemic low last week, the Labor Department reports.

Tonight’s Atlantic-approved activity:

Time has stripped away certainties, / and I don’t want to forget the past. End your day with Henri Cole’s poem “My Amaryllis.”

A break from the news:

Tag along with archaeologists as they search for America’s Atlantis.

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