The latest season of Slate’s popular historical podcast, Slow Burn, tells the story of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that enshrined the right to abortion—and is probably about to be overturned. We spoke with this season’s host, Susan Matthews, about the series.
What has surprised you in your reporting on Roe?
One of the main surprising things is that, before Roe, more Republicans than Democrats supported the right to abortion. New York state was one of the first states to introduce legalized abortion. The bill was introduced by a Republican woman, and it was passed by a Republican state legislature and signed into law by [Governor] Nelson Rockefeller, who was also a Republican. Among Republicans, there was a small-c conservative approach of supporting small government, and the main source of opposition to abortion was working-class Catholic Democrats. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, people were actually quite worried about overpopulation, so abortion and better access to reproductive healthcare was proposed as a solution.
So was Roe seen as a conservative decision at the time?
At the time, the court had five Republican appointees, and it was a 7–2 decision. They actually thought the opinion was a compromise. What they basically say in Roe v. Wade is that in the first two trimesters, the woman’s right wins out, and in the last trimester, the rights of the fetus win out. And that was honestly them trying to take in the full issue, balance both sides, and come out with an opinion that they thought would resolve it. Trying to wrap our heads around that is totally fascinating, considering this current Supreme Court and how they’ve talked about it.
What’s a story from the show that’s instructive for the present moment?
Our first episode is about a woman named Shirley Wheeler who, in 1971, was the first woman to be convicted of manslaughter for having gotten an abortion. Her story—what she went through, her trial—gets picked up by the press, and there’s a lot of outrage over it. It’s one of the things that compel women into action. I think her story has been a bit lost to history, but it shows what can happen. I mean, she got arrested, and when the cops came to her house, they asked her who gave her the abortion, and she refused to tell them. That’s why she was charged instead. There’s this theory now that women aren’t the ones who will get in trouble for this. But I think that Shirley’s story shows the inevitable example of what happens when you criminalize abortion.
This article appears in the June 2022 issue of Washingtonian.