With the recent overturn of Roe v. Wade, many of us can’t help but wonder: How did we get here? It didn’t happen overnight — no, it was more of a slow burn.
Just in time for the seventh season of Slate’s Slow Burn, host and executive editor Susan Matthews explores the path to Roe — a time when more Republicans than Democrats supported abortion rights. Her exploration leads her to the forgotten story of the first woman to be convicted of manslaughter for having an abortion, the stories of the unlikely Catholic power couple who helped ignite the pro-life movement and a rookie Supreme Court justice who got assigned the opinion of a lifetime.
We chatted with Matthews to learn more about the stories behind the podcast, their importance especially in this moment and what she’s reading when she’s not reporting.
Slate has done some important reporting on Roe v. Wade and its end. As someone who has played a major part in this reporting, can you give a snapshot of what listeners can expect from this new season of Slow Burn?
One of the things that strikes me the most about this moment is that abortion feels like one of the most “stuck” topics I can think of for Americans right now. That reality was part of why I wanted to go back in time as we awaited this decision — it’s really hard to imagine the conversation on abortion being less stuck than it is now. But in the early 1970s, things were actually changing really rapidly. Abortion was being talked about openly and all over the country for the first time, and in Slow Burn: Roe v. Wade we’re telling some of those specific stories — including the story of the first woman convicted of manslaughter for getting an abortion, the Catholic power couple who jump-started the pro-life movement, the story of a women-backed lawsuit in Connecticut that influenced Roe, and then, of course, the story of the decision itself.
I tried very hard to approach the storytelling from the perspective of realizing that the people involved in those stories had no idea how the abortion debate in America would turn out, and that helped me follow the inherent surprise of each story. So I guess what I would say is listeners can expect to learn a lot, and I hope they can feel like this is an opportunity to engage in this topic that I hope feels a little less weighed down by the politics of the moment (though there are resonances, to be sure!).
Can you tell us how this season of Slow Burn came to life and what makes it unique?
I’ve edited medical stories, jurisprudence stories and personal essays for a long time. So I am very familiar with the essay that makes the case, rooted in personal experience, for why abortion access is important. I agree that abortion access is important! But what I wanted to do with this podcast was dig into the history of abortion in America from a perspective that tried to investigate what happened and how we got to where we are now, rather than using [personal] narratives to make a simple argument about abortion. When I reported each story, I tried to include as much context as possible — and a lot was different then, more on that in a minute! — but also, in every story, I tried to really drill down into who these people were, what was motivating them to act, what worried them, what inspired them, etc. I think the thrill of Slow Burn is that each season kind of shows the listener that each of these deeply important historical moments were really just things that real people had a hand in — real people were driving the action, real people were reacting to things, real people were having feelings about them. So I hope that what makes this show unique is that we’re digging into the lives of those real people, in all of their complications.
Did anything surprise you in the process of putting this podcast together? Was there anything in your research that stood out to you most?
There are two things: The first is that abortion did not used to be partisan in the way it is now, at all. In 1972, more Republicans than Democrats supported abortion access. We dig into why that was, and we also start to answer the question of how that changed. The other thing that really surprised me was how haphazard a lot of the change was. For example, when New York liberalized its abortion law in 1970 and didn’t include a residency requirement, all of the sudden tons of women all over the country started coming to the state for abortions, and that actually had really severe ramifications that I think, when considering the context, also make sense.
Another example of this is just that no one — not even the justices — knew that Roe v. Wade was going to be the case that determined abortion rights in America when it first came to the court. It’s finding out all of the little things like that that allows listeners to just think about how many different paths we could have taken outside of the timeline we are actually on.
How has the Pocket collection you’ve created for Slow Burn: Roe vs Wade let fans go deeper into these stories?
One of the most difficult stories we reported this season was the story at the center of Episode 2, which is about the Willkes. The Willkes were a Catholic couple who really helped launch the pro-life movement — they’re perfect fodder for a podcast because we have a lot of audio of them talking. But there was so much news coverage about them as a couple in the decades after the story we’re telling in the show, and I relied on so many other stories to understand them, that it was really gratifying to be able to put all of those resources somewhere for other people to see. I was really invested in portraying the Willkes fairly and I think that building out that story in particular with supporting resources helps listeners get a real understanding of who they were and the influence they had on the pro-life movement over subsequent decades.
How does this Pocket collection support the storytelling in your podcast? Is the content in your collection different that what is shared in Slow Burn: Roe vs Wade?
I would say that our story focuses really specifically on the years leading up to Roe — so really, 1970, 1971, and 1972 — but that obviously a ton has happened with abortion and abortion politics in particular since. And the collection helped us give people a window into the rest of that story, which certainly helps explain how we ended up where we are now.
What articles and videos are in your Pocket waiting to be read/watched right now?
I am dying to read this story from The New York Times about Amber Rose. The other things in my queue are basically stories that I missed or didn’t have time to read when I was making the show and saved for later. Those include Rebecca Traister’s profile of Dianne Feinstein, the Times op-ed about marrying the wrong person that blew up the internet that I have yet to read, and Margaret Talbot’s long read on Amy Coney Barrett (for obvious reasons).
At Pocket, we’re all about helping people carve out time and space to dig into the stories that matter. Where and when do you catch up on the long reads and podcast episodes you’re excited for?
This is quite nerdy, but I’m a member of the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens and so I try to take long walks on the weekends around there with the podcasts I want to catch up on (Prospect Park works for this purpose too!). Commuting time of any kind — subway to work, car rides — are big for podcasts for me too. I also really like to lounge in bed on Sunday mornings and scroll through whatever I missed during the week.