Want to learn more about Roe v. Wade? Here’s the podcast for you

Susan Matthews had a long day on May 2 this year. As news director at Slate, she had been working for months on the seventh season of Slow Burn, the revered podcast that previously aired deep dives into subjects including Watergate, the impeachment of Bill Clinton and the lead-up to the Iraq War.

When she got home to her apartment in Brooklyn that night, a friend texted to tell her the news. An opinion from the Supreme Court had been leaked. It looked very much like Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalised abortion in the US, was about to be overturned.

Matthews knew this could be coming soon, but she was still stunned. The season she was working on was all about how Roe v. Wade came into being in the first place.

Abortion rights demonstrators chant outside the US Supreme Court in Washington DC on June 25.Credit:Bloomberg

At the start of a meeting the next day, her editor paused for a moment, looked around the room and said, “I think I should ask something. Is everyone okay?”

“And I just had this moment where I thought ‘Okay, I’m going to get upset and cry right now’,” says Matthews. “So I did. We were incredibly busy, but the reality of what was happening was hard for everyone. This is an incredibly tough moment in American history.”

Slow Burn: Roe v. Wade, premiered on June 1. Its fourth and final episode dropped on June 22. Two days later, the Supreme Court officially overturned Roe v. Wade.

The podcast is a stark reminder of what was lost. As Matthews started researching, she was surprised by what she found.

Podcaster Susan Matthews.Credit:Camilla Cera

“The first thing I learned was that before Roe, more Republicans supported abortion than Democrats,” she says. “That’s now completely shifted. The abortion debate supercharges our politics now. The two sides don’t talk to each other, they yell at each other.”

The second surprise came when she searched for information about Shirley Wheeler, who was largely forgotten to history, despite becoming the face of the abortion debate, with her name being chanted at rallies. In 1970 she became the first women to be prosecuted with manslaughter for having an abortion. She was publicly condemned and faced 20 years in prison.

“It amazed me that despite facing jail time, she wouldn’t tell the police the name of the doctor who performed the abortion,” says Matthews. “She wasn’t making a stand for political reasons. She was doing it for her own health and for her autonomy. And for her to be charged with manslaughter is an example of why these laws are so problematic.”

The podcast looks at both sides of the debate. The second episode investigates the pro-life movement, which grew out of the work of Catholic power couple John and Barbara Wilkie. Their 1971 book Handbook Of Abortion, which became a sacred text for those against abortion, was accompanied by graphic photos of aborted foetuses. Matthews maintains her journalistic objectivity when reporting on them.

“I wanted to show that if people have this deeply held belief that life begins with conception, then of course the ultimate outcome is that they will think abortion is wrong. So I had to accept that and deal with it in order to see the Wilkies as people.”

The final episode is perhaps the most surprising of all. The judicial hero of Roe v. Wade turned out not to be a left-wing crusader, but a Justice appointed by Richard Nixon because he was measured and conservative in his beliefs and rulings. He did something Matthews feels is remarkable – he read and researched and listened, then became deeply empathetic and changed his mind about something, ultimately gaining a 7-2 ruling to make abortion legal in 1973.

Justice Harry Blackmun died in 1999. What does Matthews think he would have made of the current Supreme Court’s ruling?

“I asked all his clerks that exact question and they said he was consistent throughout his life and the Republican party moved out from under him. He loved and respected the Supreme Court and our institutions. And what we’re seeing now is a perversion of those institutions. I think he would be devastated on multiple levels.”

After making a podcast on the advent of Roe v. Wade, and then witnessing its recent overturn, Matthews feels there are lessons to be learned.

“I’m 32, so I’ve grown up with Roe v. Wade as a given,” she says. “I asked all these women who worked on the case in the early ’70s what they thought about what was happening now. So many of them said, ‘This is your generation’s burden now.’ They saw women protesting, but they wondered if they were then going to organise. They said that we had to do more than just protest. I think we have a lot to learn from them. Once abortion was legalised, women backed off. Now that this has happened, we know we can never back off again.”

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