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Anna Kelsey-Sugg and Julian Morrow for Sunday Extra

The Roe v Wade abortion case inspired Joshua Prager to find the real family at the centre of the legal battle

Norma McCorvey, the woman at the heart of the Roe v Wade case, gave birth to a child before the landmark case settled. Jonathan Prager set out to find that child. (Getty: Bob Riha)

Roe v Wade has been the law of the land in America and at the heart of that nation's political debate for almost 50 years.

That debate continues even now that the law – which in 1973 established the right of a woman to have an abortion until the point of viability, or later if required to protect her health or life – has been overturned.

But at the centre of the very public legal drama, somehow hidden was not just one woman – pseudonymously known as Jane Roe – but two: Norma McCorvey, the real Jane Roe, and the daughter she gave birth to while her abortion rights case was working its way to the top of the US legal system.

Journalist Joshua Prager tells ABC RN's Sunday Extra that for most of his life he'd assumed "the woman who won the legal right to have an abortion, had one".

When he learnt that McCorvey gave birth to a daughter – the legal ruling was handed down after she gave birth – who was adopted by another family, he became intrigued by the question of who this person was.

"The pro-life side of things in America looked at that unknown human being as the sort of living incarnation of their argument against abortion," he says.

Prager wanted to hear her side, and learn what she thought about her biological mother's famous court case.

In investigating the story, he discovered that Norma McCorvey had other biological children and that some of them had been desperately looking for one another.

"I'm the one that brought them together," he says.

"And that was a very, very dramatic moment."

'Depressing' pursuit to exploit media interest

Prager explores the Roe case and his decade of research into abortion in America in his book, The Family Roe: an American Story.

Norma McCorvey's former long-term partner, Connie Gonzalez, gave the journalist access to thousands of McCorvey's old private papers. These were stashed in a garage and are now at a research library at Harvard University. One paper had the date of birth of McCorvey's youngest child.

"That was how I ended up finding my way to her," Prager says.

He learnt that "Baby Roe", as she was known in the legal case, was named Shelley, and that she had two older half-sisters, Melissa and Jennifer, also born to McCorvey.

Melissa and Jennifer, who have different biological fathers, were also adopted. When Prager tracked them down, he learnt they knew of one another's existence and had been "desperately looking for one another all the years of their lives".

Prager orchestrated a meeting, after they all expressed an interest in meeting one another. He says that, though "they're not all now particularly close", that moment of introduction was "beautiful".

"I sat back and I watched and I listened to them talk about all the things that they had in common; the sort of eerie similarities that long-lost biological siblings might discover in one another, and the differences."

Running simultaneous to this happiness though, was "a very dramatic undercurrent", he says.

"That their [biological] mother was Jane Roe."

Prager says only one of the three children, Melissa, had known Norma McCorvey.

Melissa had been raised by her grandmother, McCorvey's mother, and so McCorvey was "in and out of Melissa's life", he says.

Jennifer, the middle child, "had no idea who her [biological] mother was" and "had no idea about Roe v Wade".

The youngest, Shelley, found out at the age of about 19 that she was "Baby Roe", and McCorvey was her biological mother, in less than ideal circumstances.

"It was very depressing for Shelley because it turned out that Norma [McCorvey] had worked with this tabloid to find her."

McCorvey's motivations, Prager says, were to capitalise on the media attention and "hit the road together, and [make] speeches and earn money".

"This was very depressing for Shelley."

Impact of being 'Baby Roe'

When Shelley learnt that her biological mother was at the heart of the widely publicised, landmark legal case, she was "utterly worried", Prager says.

She didn't know much about the case, nor about the woman involved in it.

"All she knew, she told me, at that point about Norma — Jane Roe — was that she had just been portrayed on television by Holly Hunter in an NBC 1989 movie," Prager says.

But Shelley knew exactly how divisive an issue abortion was in America.

"This is like a civil war in our country, the issues over abortion, [and Shelley was] worried that she would be used, that she would be a pawn in this big game; [that] people on the pro-life side would point to her as the embodiment of their argument," he says.

"She wanted no part of that."

Then, when she met McCorvey, Prager says the two women became embroiled in "a huge fight".

"When [Shelley] did connect with Norma … Norma actually told her to thank her that she had not aborted her.

"This was a miserable conversation and they never spoke again."

Finding empathy for both sides

Prager, who is pro-choice, argues that discussion around abortion in American has become unproductive and that there is "extremism" on both sides of the fence.

He believes the extended "Roe" family illustrates "all of the different complicated things that abortion in America is".

He hopes in writing about those complications, that he can help to alleviate some of the hostile division in the abortion debate in America, and encourage people to "feel for the other side".

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