Remembering the real women in ‘Roe v. Wade’

A playwright takes the lightning-rod Supreme Court case to the stage.

Left: Sara Bruner (as Norma McCorvey) and Richard Elmore. Right: Sarah Jane Agnew (as Sarah Weddington), and Mark Bedard in “Roe” at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. CREDIT: C. Stanley Photography.

Jane Roe was a woman. It’s easy to forget that, and what exactly that means, when you think about her as half of Roe v. Wade. Her individuality goes fuzzy at the edges. She was a woman, but now she’s every woman. She was pregnant in America when she didn’t want to be, and now she is invoked, on some level, whenever a woman in America becomes pregnant and doesn’t want to be. Impossible to imagine what choice she would have made all those years ago, when Sarah Weddington, then 26 years old, approached her about being the plaintiff in a case that would legalize abortion in the United States, if she had known what that would really mean. Hard to say how she could have predicted what it would do to her, being Jane Roe, back when she was still just Norma McCorvey.

Who Norma was before winning Roe v. Wade in 1973, and the remarkable reversal she made after the fact — from working in an abortion clinic to joining up with the religious right as an anti-abortion activist, a cause she supports to this day — is at the center of Lisa Loomer’s play, Roe, which made its east coast premiere at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., on January 12.

Sarah, for her part, continues to fight for abortion rights; she served three terms in the Texas House of Representatives, was the first female General Counsel of U.S. Department of Agriculture, and was an assistant to President Jimmy Carter. Just days ago, on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, she spoke with NBC about President Donald Trump and the enormous threat he poses to abortion access and reproductive rights in this country.

Loomer’s dramatic conceit is that Norma and Sarah, who in reality have not spoken in decades, have reunited for one night to tell the story of the iconic legal battle and the resulting fallout. She spoke with ThinkProgress two days after the Women’s March on Washington, easily among the largest protests in U.S. history (though of course not nearly as huge as the crowds at Trump’s inauguration!), where millions rallied for the rights they feared Trump and his administration would strip away, including abortion access.

Where are you calling from? Did you march on Saturday?

I’m calling from New York, and I was at the March in New York on Saturday. And it was incredible. It was an endless sea of protest. I just remember looking down the street and it did not end, and it kept coming in waves. And the signs were poignant, they were funny, they were inventive, they made me think of things from different angles. Every emotion was at that march.

You were in D.C. last week, on the eve of the inauguration, for the premiere of this play. How did that feel?

Well, I’ve done a lot of plays, and many of them are political. But I’ve never had a play that was done at a moment in time where the play spoke into such an urgent listening. There’s a phrase that playwrights use: “Why this play? Why now?” And I think I ask myself that before I take on a play, before I take on a subject matter. But I’ve never seen the answer so clearly as with this play.

I started researching for this play three years ago. And it was always Bill Rauch’s idea, the director of the play and the artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, that it be done in the year of the election. And we had a hunch that there would be a woman running for president. The play began a seven-month run in Oregon beginning in April. So it played all through the nominations, through the conventions, and it ended its run on November 1. We were, at that time, thinking, “How will this play play out in D.C.?” And like most of the country, we imagined that it would be playing with our first woman president in office. So on election night, of course, we were stunned on a number of fronts.

As I read the play the week after the election, I was thinking about changes. Because the play begins and ends in the present; there is an immediacy to it, and afforded to us, with this structure. And it was fascinating for me just to read it myself, because without making a single change, the play had an entirely different resonance. The ironies were different, the comedy was different, the tragedy was different.

I did make a few changes to update it, to take into this present moment. But it was remarkable to me: How different a play could land just given its moment in time. So the way it is landing now is unbelievable. People are hearing it as a cri de coeur, a cry of the heart. And I was not there yesterday, but the actors told me that after the march there was an electricity to the performance and in the audience that, in itself, was new. So I saw it opening night, which was last Wednesday, and already, Sunday, it is landing differently.

Was writing about Roe your idea? This was commissioned as part of this series of plays about U.S. history, yes?

Actually, it was suggested to me. And my first reaction was, I don’t think I want to write about a court case, per se, because my work is theatrical; it often has a lot of humor, even though it is political and issue-oriented. I usually approach my issues from the point of view of a very human story.

But after I started doing the research, I discovered that there were many human stories, even around the court case itself, the making of the case, the people involved. And as I researched further, I discovered a story: The fact that Norma McCorvey did have a change of heart, and that these two people, the plaintiff and the lawyer, who began as allies, took divergent paths after the case. And these divergent paths seem, to me, a way of looking at the larger issue: the divide in our country. The cultural divide, This profound divide. With this issue, what we have is just a total inability to even speak to each other across this divide. And three years ago, when I began, I was very curious about that. Why can’t we speak to each other? What is so different in our life, in our perspective, that we cannot even talk to each other over an issue like this?

Left: Norma McCorvey, the plaintiff in Roe v. Wade, joins other anti-abortion demonstrators inside House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, July 28, 2009. (CREDIT: AP Photo/Manuel Balce Cenet) Right: Sarah Weddington, the lawyer who successfully argued Roe v. Wade, speaks during a rally in Washington, Sunday, April 25, 2004, as tens of thousands of women gathered for an abortion-rights rally and march. (CREDIT: AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

And ironically, that divide has become even more visible to me right now. It is the question. And so Roe, this play, is a way of looking at that divide, and I think beginning to understand how profoundly different the liberal and conservative approaches are. My hope with it was not to write a polemic, but to write a story in which people with very different points of view can sit together in the dark, which is what theater is, and, together, contemplate an issue.

Knowing the demographics of Oregon and D.C., and knowing the generally liberal-leaning politics of people who go to the theater, how many people are you expecting to be in the audience for this show who don’t already agree with the central thrust of the play?

The central thrust of this show is that there are two very different ways of looking at this issue. And that, in itself, is a controversial thing to do in the theater, because people like their heroes and their villains. And I don’t think there are in this piece. Certainly the audience is by and large, liberal. I’d say 80, 85 percent. But you definitely hear from the minority in this audience. A fight broke out — not a physical fight, but a talkback during a scene the other night, between Trump supporters and Hillary supporters, during a scene. I’ve had many people come up to me and say, “I’m a person of faith, I’m a devout Christian, and I feel that you represented my point of view very fairly.” So even though it is a largely liberal audience, there is a very vocal audience as well that is not liberal, and they’re willing to see a show called Roe, so already they’re a little bit open-minded. But some of them have been dragged there, and were happy to be dragged!

You were already aware, I assume, of the contours of the case and the politics around abortion rights in this country. What did you learn in your research that surprised you?

There are people who approach this issue as a matter of the law, and as a matter of choice, and that is certainly the character of Sarah Weddington’s point of view: That the argument is about choice, it’s about a woman’s right to determine her own body. And then there are people who approach this issue from a religious, moral, or personal point of view. And these points of view will never reconcile, because one person’s point of view is that says we must have choice, it is incompatible with the POV that says, this choice is murder. And this is a — it’s a profound, profound difference and there is no way to reconcile these two points of view on this issue. So all I felt I could do was to present them.

I think the play makes a very strong case for choice because it makes the case for choices we make throughout our lives, including the choice of, what religion will we practice? That’s a freedom of choice issue right there. And who will we choose to share our lives with?

The other thing that surprised me was, whereas Sarah Weddington felt it was a matter of the law, Norma McCorvery felt it was about her. For one woman, Roe is the law, and for the other woman, that was her pseudonym: She was Roe. Another thing that surprised me was this is idea of, what is history? What is truth? When I was first discussing the idea of the American history cycle, I had this crazy idea that the shows might be history from the point of view of everyone other than the white man. Now, I’m glad they didn’t eventually do that, because we would’ve missed some great plays. But I think that a great many of the plays are going to be from an unheard point of view. A theme throughout the play is that one’s version of history is — as the character of Sarah Weddington puts it, is influenced by differentials such as race, class, sexuality, sexual identity, gender, and religion. So what surprised me was the many, many versions of truth and history that I encountered, simple through it may be.

So Sarah Weddington had an abortion before she tried Roe, and she didn’t tell Norma about it; Norma finds out later, when Sarah’s book is published, and feels totally betrayed. In the play, you withhold this information until the second act, which puts the audience in the same place as Norma when we find out about it, as opposed to putting us in Sarah’s position and giving us that information before she took the case. What was the thinking behind that creative decision?

You ask a good question, because initially the information was in Act One! And we decided to delay it until Act Two because it would have more impact in the conflict between the two women. The conflict between them is a dramatic conceit — the things that are happening “this evening” are totally fictional, based on what I gleaned to be their feelings about each other through their books. Sarah Weddington says they have not met since 1995, apart from this evening. But I think that’s Sarah’s choice. First of all, she does talk about it in her book. The monologue is based on what she says in her book. But it compelled her, I imagine, to make this a matter of law, so that, as she says, all women can have safe, legal abortions.

Norma McCorvey and her attorney Gloria Allred leave the Supreme Court building in Washington, DC., April 26, 1989 after sitting in while the court listened to arguments in a Missouri abortion case. CREDIT: AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhit)

Norma also feels betrayed by the fact that she wasn’t able to benefit from the case herself; she had to carry her pregnancy to term while the case went on. She says that Sarah deliberately misled her about that. Obviously it’s important to factor in Norma’s youth, class, and educational background, but it seems like any reasonable person would know that the case would take too long to play out for the individual who served as the plaintiff to actually get an abortion, that signing up would be taking one for the team.

But according to Norma’s book, and many other interviews — and the book was not my only source, I did a huge amount of research — she did not know. She did not realize. And so there, again, we have the dueling versions of history. Sarah Weddington says she made it very clear, and Norma McCorvey says, it was not clear to her.

What else did you read as research?

I read other people’s books about Roe v. Wade. I read them from the historian’s point of view, from the Christian right point of view, I watched documentaries. I watched every interview with anyone involved in the case, or involved in the issue. Every article. Of course i listened to the case itself and read Blackmun’s decision.

Can you talk about the dramatic call to use recordings from the real Supreme Court case in the trial scene?

You know, a case is a very difficult thing to dramatize. And so I was thinking, how can we do this so that it’s not dry? If you listen to the case, it goes on for quite a while. It is not a dramatic piece of theater, in itself. There’s a lot of cutting involved. I thought, what if we didn’t see all these people in long black robes? I imagine this woman, she’s 26 years old, it’s her first contested case. How can I dramatize what a powerful moment it is for her? I thought, let’s have her alone on stage — there are other attorneys there, but when she’s at the podium, she’s very alone. I thought, let’s not see the judges. Let’s see this from her point of view. So you see her looking up and out at unseen judges, but we hear their voices.

The other thing I thought was, because the tape did exist, how amazing and how intrinsically theatrical it would be to hear the voices of the real justices. These are actual exchanges from the case, and you hear the actual voices of the judges.

It is incredible to think this seismic decision was spurred on entirely by women under the age of 30.

Yeah, well, Norma was certainly very young as well.

Why did they pick Norma? She was such an imperfect model for this. It reminds me of the teenage girl who defied segregation laws on a bus before Rosa Parks did, but she wasn’t considered the ideal face of the movement and Rosa was. It’s surprising that Sarah wouldn’t be as careful about selecting a more traditionally appealing plaintiff.

I know, it’s a very, very unusual choice. It was an unusual choice.

It makes the success even more remarkable considering how flawed a candidate Norma was.

Exactly! Someone was creating an overall, shall we say, dramatic arc to this story that could never been scripted.

What did you cut that you wish you could have included, but it had to go to serve the story you were telling here?

Participants in an anti-abortion rally on Monday, Jan. 23, 2017, at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash. CREDIT: AP Photo/Ted S. Warren

The first draft of this play was from the [present-day] character of Roxy’s point of view, who is now a character we meet at the end of the play. So perhaps I miss the voice of the young woman of color, the contemporary woman, throughout. But ultimately no, because we do hear her voice loud and clear in the end. And I did find other ways of making sure that the perspective of women of color was in the play.

I had a fact in the epilogue that there have been 300 restrictions to Roe v. Wade since 2011. And I thought, my God, that’s a powerful fact, but I had to cut it. Because there’s such a fine line you’re treading, even though any fact in Sarah Weddington’s mouth is appropriate, because she is still arguing the case. But there were facts that were stunning to me that I felt I couldn’t put in a drama.

You do give the religious right quite a lot of real estate, though. You have so much information about Norma but so little information about Sarah. It seems like that largely has to do with Sarah’s decision to lead a mostly private life, and norma’s decision to basically do the opposite.

Yes, yes yes. Norma goes into great detail about her personal life in both her books and Sarah does not. And I found that interesting, I found that challenging, but I also thought: This is a person who fought for the right of privacy. I have to give her a right to privacy.

So I wrote that monologue where Norma challenges Sarah about her own life, and Sarah says, “Do you think a cause is not a life? That is has the same passions and disappointments and boredom as a marriage?” Let’s have this character, this woman, on stage, who has dedicated her life to a cause. And I think that resonates a great deal right now. I think it resonates a great deal in terms of Hillary Clinton. I think a lot of people identify with the character of Sarah Weddington right now, because a lot of people feel like they’ve given their life to a cause, and that everything they’ve given their life to is in jeopardy right now.

With all the research you’ve done and the time you’ve spent with this play, how optimistic or pessimistic are you about our ability to bridge this divide that you talk about?

What makes me optimistic is that people are acknowledging the divide and are interested in exploring it, and in recognizing it, admitting it, and are willing to think about it. And I see this in pop culture. I see the new Van Jones show on CNN is exactly about that. And I think it’s very, very important at this moment in time. I’m seeing a lot of people too angry to look at it; there’s still a lot of anger. But I’m also seeing people acknowledging that this is something we have to look at because we are stuck with each other, this is our country. And we have to understand the other, whoever that “other” may be, and whoever we may be.