On June 24, the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, a historic landmark case that made abortion a protected right. Overturning this case means that it is up to the states to decide if people have the right to a safe abortion. The discrepancies between states and their protected rights has made abortion a hot-button topic across the nation.
On Nov. 16, the Brandeis Journalism Program hosted “Abortion: Past, Present, and Future,” an event that explored the topic and how journalists approach it. The event featured Joshua Prager, author of “The Family Roe,” an informational book on the history of the Roe behind Roe v. Wade, and Margaret Talbot, longtime staff writer for The New Yorker who has written many articles on this very topic, including a recent profile of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito.
Prior to the event, The Brandeis Hoot had the opportunity to meet with both Prager and Talbot to ask them about the importance of journalism, particularly when it comes to writing about divisive topics. Prager and Talbot began the interview by describing what got them into journalism and their interests specifically. Talbot began by talking about how she first got involved in campus journalism at the University of California Berkeley’s The Daily Californian, and in 2003 became a staff writer at The New Yorker where she began her career as a longform narrative journalist. Prager mentioned that his introduction to journalism began with his desire to expose Columbia University’s lack of accessibility. But as Prager developed through his professional career his first job which showed him his interest was a story he wrote about “Margaret Wise Brown, who had bequeathed the royalties from her book to a little boy who lived next door.” No one had known about the location and identity of the little boy since the publishing of “Good Night Moon” and Prager’s discovery of the little boy proved that he was interested in “writing about historical secrets … that were connected to big historical things.”
Prager and Talbot then reflected on how public opinion and political interests impact journalism. Prager began by saying “I’m not sure how the change in politics would affect how I would report on this. There is a great quote by Laurence Tribe, a famous constitutional scholar who wrote a book called ‘Clash of Absolutes’ about abortion in America, wrote it 30 years ago. And he says that the only way America will ever … emerge from its sort of civil war over abortion is by giving voice to the human reality on each side of the verses. That’s something that I believe strongly in: humanizing both sides, writing with empathy about both sides and letting the truth emerge.” Talbot agreed, adding, “I think the same tools and approaches that I used before we entered such a frightening and divisive time [are still effective]. I still use [them] because I still believe in them. Meeting people and listening to them tell their stories in a way that, even if they don’t agree with me completely, they will recognize themselves in.”
The interview with Prager and Talbot served as an opener to the Journalism Program’s event. Noting this, Prager said “I think we’ll be talking about that a lot [the overturning of Roe v. Wade] at our event. So I probably won’t give too much away [in this interview].” A week later, at the Nov. 16 event moderated by journalism professors Neil Swidey and Ann Silvio, Prager and Talbot fielded questions from the moderators and from the audience about abortion, the real life Roe and how this all affects society.
With the midterm elections in the first half of the week on Tuesday, Nov. 15, this was the first topic brought up at the event as one of the largest issues on the ballot was abortion. Talbot noticed this connection as she remarked, “One of the surprises this election was that abortion was an issue people voted on.” She brought up a New York Times article that observed people not seeing it as a hot-button issue anymore, but the election outcomes proved otherwise. She introduced how voters in California, Vermont and Michigan voted to protect abortion rights and how this proved the importance of this issue. Prager also noted the connection and talked about how he was not surprised by this and that this was a topic on the minds of politicians. “Politicians have little conviction and will conform to their constituents. They saw what the people wanted, and this led to it being an important topic on election day.”
Shifting from how the elections impacted reproductive rights, Prager and Talbot branched out to discuss the struggles of fighting for the rights for abortion, and the importance of their jobs as journalists. “It’s hard to think of something so common and safe that is so stigmatized,” Talbot expressed, demonstrating the difficulties of fighting for the right to safe abortions. As a journalist, Talbot mentioned how she tries to spread awareness so that people make well-informed choices. One of the ways Talbot felt was best to promote this issue, and Prager agreed as his book “The Family Roe” centers around this very topic, was to bring up personal stories. To bring these personal stories to light can help people connect to the issue on a deeper level. Talbot mentioned how, since the Dobbs decision, more of these personal stories have been shared. Prager added to this, saying, “When you are exposed to somebody or some group, you are less likely to be prejudiced against them.” This is what is leading to all of these personal stories over the past couple of months. People want their voices to be heard in order to fight against this injustice in this country. Prager continued by saying, “Abortion is rooted in secrecy, and the way to combat secrecy is exposure.”
This event continued with conversations centering around Prager’s book, “The Family Roe.” The book follows the life of Norma McCorvey, who was given the name Jane Roe for her privacy during the trial, and Shelley Lynn Thornton, Norma’s daughter, the baby that McCorvey fought to abort. Prager mentioned how this event was actually a full circle moment, as an article that Talbot wrote in 2008 which briefly mentioned that McCorvey never got an abortion was what inspired Prager to write this book. While Prager himself is for abortion rights, he approached this book with the goal of objectively stating the facts. “I wrote this book not as an activist, but as a journalist,” said Prager. “McCorvey is a complicated figure. She gave up the child she fought to abort for adoption, as well as two previous children.” Prager continued, mentioning that McCorvey had a girlfriend for many decades and was out and proud, until she became a born-again Christian, switching from believing in abortion rights to being anti-abortion. Prager found this to be a fascinating story that should be shared, adding that “Norma was a perfect character for me because she embodied the conflict and divide of this country.”
Prager added another layer to the topic of the divide around abortion by discussing abortion as a conversation about class. Prager remarked that Norma was not a well-off or particularly presentable woman, and it was hard for her to get involved in the abortion rights movement, leading to her anti-abortion stage of life. Prager wanted to make his opinions clear about this connection of class and abortion. “There is a problem today with pro-choice leaders and it is that they are elitist. Access to abortion is about the financial welfare of women.” Talbot supported this sentiment, saying that “Abortion is an issue about poverty and access,” demonstrating that the two agreed on this matter’s importance.
At the conclusion of the event, Prager and Talbot spoke to all of the students in the room about how this issue relates to them. Prager acknowledged that since Roe v. Wade was passed in 1973, the students in the room did not know life without it. “You have only known abortion as a right,” Prager stated that “we shouldn’t take our rights for granted.” Both Prager and Talbot wanted to make it clear to the audience of potential journalists that they have a lot of power and they are involved in this fight. They added that the overturning of Roe v. Wade led to a lot of anger in this country, and that in order to protect the right to abortion, the speakers explained how they wanted voices to be heard. As this was an event hosted by the journalism department with two journalists speaking, the importance of journalism and reporting was emphasized. “I think we should all be engaged and pay attention,” Prager expressed, “The future journalists in this room need to fight and to research.”