Jane Roe’s Oldest Daughter Talks Feminism, Abortion, and the Future of Roe v. Wade
It’s an extraordinary moment for abortion in America. Supreme Court has begun to reconsider the 1973 precedent which gave birth to the Constitution’s right of abortion. Roe V. Wade.
The Texas Supreme Court approved a law directly contrary to Texas earlier this month. RoeBy banning abortion within six weeks of its occurrence. The justices could rule in favor of another Mississippi statute that prohibits abortions after fifteen weeks. Oder they might decide to reverse the decision. Roe altogether.
The woman at the center of that historic case, known by the pseudonym Jane Roe, died in 2017 before former President Donald Trump’s three conservative Supreme Court appointees tipped the balance of the court and encouraged a wave of new laws seeking to test the right to abortion. Norma McCorvey was a woman she revealed to be in 1980s. She left behind her three daughters, and a tale just as fraught, like the national debate on the subject that made her so famous.
McCorvey’s life included abuse, alcoholism, drug addiction, reform school, changes in sexual identity and religion, and multiple pregnancies. McCorvey had given birth to her first two children by that time. She also connected with lawyers to fight the 1970 abortion ban. After her case had been through several courts, McCorvey was able to have the third child and place it for adoption. McCorvey was involved with the pro-choice movement, but she never felt fully accepted. McCorvey became a part of the abortion rights movement in 1994, but she never felt accepted. In 1995 she spoke out against the procedure and started to voice her opposition. This was a huge win for anti-abortion activists.
A documentary last year revealed McCorvey had confessed to her suicide that McCorvey’s apparent switch was fake. She had been paid by anti-abortion groups to speak for their cause, she said, and her opposition to abortion was “all an act.”
“Everyone who was interested in her wanted her to change, to represent what they wanted, so she was constantly changing,” says McCorvey’s oldest daughter, Melissa Mills. “But Norma always wanted to have equal rights for women.”
Mills is a mother to two children and has been a Texas licensed practical nurse for almost three decades. She was raised by her grandmother, McCorvey’s mother, and spent time with McCorvey as she learned about politics and women’s rights during her teenage years.
TIME recently spoke with Mills, the only one of McCorvey’s children who knew her throughout her life, about her mother’s complex place in American history, the Supreme Court’s consideration of Texas and Mississippi’s abortion laws, and the future of abortion in the U.S. The following conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
How was your relationship with your mother growing up?
I knew my mother as my sister, basically, because I didn’t see her all the time and I lived with my grandparents. My grandmother and grandfather divorced, so she kept popping in and out. I stayed with her about nine months and it didn’t end well. Things went kind of crazy—my grandmother had to come back and get me.
In my teenage years I saw her once more. The feelings got better over time and she was a much more attractive person. When I was 10, I had lived with her and was active in pro-choice movements. She was then pro-choice. And that’s when I was staying with her.
Did you learn anything about the involvement of her in advocating abortion rights?
My Aunt Connie—her lover, the woman she was with forever—she would tell me that mom was special, that she was in the history books and that she’s making history. And I didn’t really understand at all until I was about 12.
She invited me to several house parties, which was quite different. They’re all talking about abortion and they had the little posters about abortion. After a while, I finally figured it all out. Then I joined her at rallies. With Aunt Connie I was also there. That was kind of crazy to see how volatile people were—kind of aggressive pro-life and pro-choice. You didn’t think pro-life would be aggressive, but they were probably more aggressive than the pro-choice. Later, when I was older I went along with her several times. That was something that I will never forget.
When did you realize that Jane Roe was your mother?
When I first started to understand what this meant, I was 12 years old. Because I was familiar with her being gay, it was quite difficult for me to comprehend at first. This made it a bit confusing. Even though I knew she had me, I didn’t understand.
It was almost like having a secret you keep around, even though everyone who knew me was aware of how important it was. It was more of a secret because people didn’t accept that type of thing back then. They didn’t talk about it. However, I found it to be like all the parties I attended with so many people. They were discussing it. It was amazing.
How did you feel about the possibility of abortion when you attended these events together with your mother?
It wasn’t so much the topic of abortion as it was Norma was pro-woman. It was clear to me that women need equal rights. Because she stood for women and championed how they should be treated, I have always been proud of her.
I was very proud of her for going the distance and staying in there even when they really didn’t care about her. She persevered and pushed through whatever was put in front of her. She’d be pulled from one side to the other. She hung on.
My mom didn’t have a degree. Her education was not formal. She was simply a survivalist. People liked her and she could work anywhere. Her desire to see women succeed was real. She was always a great friend and I appreciated her kindness.
Your mother eventually changed her mind and began advocating for abortion rights. How did that happen?
She’d been put down her entire life, for being gay and for wanting to have an abortion. She came from a Jehovah’s Witness type background. People made her feel guilty about her life choices, who she was, and what she did. She was either doing drugs or being criticized by people. I don’t want to say that’s the only reason, but I think we all have those demons she carried around for her whole life.
And they did make her feel good—the pro-life people brought her in and they took care of her. They were kind to her. I’ve never been faced with that. However, I’m free to make my own decision. If I had that choice to make, I don’t want anybody telling me what to do and I don’t want my kids to have anybody telling them. I want women to have that autonomy—that they don’t have someone telling them how to live their lives and what they can and cannot do at this day and age.
What did you learn from your mom’s past and how has it influenced your views about abortion?
I have been surrounded by strong women my entire life. Norma was one my strongest friends and she fought to make sure that women had the rights they deserve. With her being gay, and seeing all the trouble she went through, people didn’t accept that back then. They don’t accept it still a lot now. It was something I always admired about her, because she didn’t worry so much and continued to try to help everyone.
We have made so many great strides together. My grandparent, who was 40 when I was born, raised me. At 90, she died. This was her last breath. [time of] ‘woman cleans the house, has the babies and is not the breadwinner.’ And then going from Norma to her, it was a big difference. You have to be able to stand alone and without those rights, we can’t function. We’re held back. And I don’t want to go back to that.
It’s the same with my daughters. My daughters are extremely strong. They know that they can do it all on their own, and they don’t need to rely on anyone else. And that’s the way we all are.
The Supreme Court heard arguments in the matter. Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health OrganizationThis is the Mississippi case that’s challenging a law Roe V. Wade. What was your reaction to listening to these arguments?
At 15 weeks … You don’t even have time. That’s totally insane. This leaves you with no time to do anything. Then, if they turn around Roe V. WadeMany places won’t allow abortions. You’ll have to travel [to access abortion]. It’s insane that we’re going to take health care away from women that need it.
The Dobbs arguments, Justice Amy Coney Barrett asked why people would want to carry unplanned pregnancies past term when they can adopt the children. Based on your personal experience, how did this comment impact you?
For some women that’s gonna be terrible to have to carry a child to full term if that’s not what they want to do. That’s gonna scar them for life. And some women just don’t want to have a child at all. Let’s just say you make a mistake, it happens. But you know you don’t want to be a mother. That should be your choice if you don’t want to have that child. That’s crazy that they’re going to take that choice away from us. They’re going to set us back 50 years, and then take our health care away. It’s awful. I just can’t believe it’s going to happen like that.
You’re right, I was the lucky one. My grandparents took me. I didn’t go into foster care. I didn’t have to go into all of these different things that a lot of kids go into where they get beaten, abused and taken advantage of. Both of my sisters were adopted. But if you’re in a different situation where you’re taken away, and you don’t get adopted, and you get into one of these programs, who knows how your life is going to be.
I’m just saying if someone doesn’t want to have that child, she’s ultimately the one that has to live with that for the rest of her life. That plays on your mind when somebody makes you do something that you’re not ready to do. It is the most important thing in your life and can have a huge impact on your future. I just can’t believe that some man or some group is going to tell women how the rest of their lives are going to go.
Brett Kavanaugh (another justice) suggested that during oral arguments, the Supreme Court allow the states to decide what they want about abortion. This would give some states the ability to continue abortion law, while others could ban it quickly. What’s your reaction to that argument?
That’s gonna be terrible. I don’t want them to overturn Roe V. Wade. But that’s gonna be a free-for-all too. All of this is going to set us back 50 years, it’s going to take us back to being told what we can do, how to do it, if we can do it. Controlling our lives. We’ve come this far. They wish to have control over our bodies, and even our lives. That’s not right. That just can’t happen. I don’t understand how it can happen.
Texas has passed legislation that bans abortions within six weeks. It also allows citizens to sue private individuals if someone violates that law. What do you think about the law’s existence?
You can be sued if they even hear about it. That’s insane putting it in the people’s hands. People are cruel or they might be able to take what you have already said and turn it against you. That’s crazy. That’s ludicrous.
And at six weeks, you don’t even know you’re pregnant. A lot of times people don’t even know until eight to 10 weeks. This is insane. I just can’t believe that’s happened to us. For my children, it scares the hell out of me. As a health worker, it scares my brain. That’s why I’m not working with OB/GYNs right now. It is because of the affiliation I have with it. I didn’t want anything thrown at me because of my beliefs.
As these state laws have been passed, some abortion rights advocates want Congress to pass a law, the Women’s Health Protection Act, that would codify the protections of Roe V. WadeStop the states from passing anti-abortion laws. You think that is a good idea?
That would be my preference. That would be the ultimate, so they don’t have to keep revisiting this. If they fail to do so, Roe, it’s going to be terrible. We’re going to see deaths. We’re going to see people’s lives turned upside down. It’s going to be bad. It’s going to be worse if people don’t have access to health care.
A second tactic that liberals are talking about is increasing the Supreme Court justices’ number as a reaction to the partisan character of recent years’ nomination process, which has led to the conservative majority of 6-3. Are you a supporter of increasing the Court’s capacity?
Yeah, because that’s crazy that we’ve got so many people that are not pro-choice, that are trying to do it in. It’s crazy that they could get it like that. That’s what Trump did.
How would your mother feel about the cases involving abortion that were brought before the Supreme Court in this year’s session?
My mom’s perspective on abortion changed a lot over her life. Everybody who cared about her desired her to be different, and to reflect their values. So she changed constantly. She was plagued by many demons.
Norma was a nurse at an abortion clinic, where she helped patients. The pro-life folks took advantage of that, and later in her life she would say that she didn’t want abortion being “abused.” But I truly don’t think she believed that the solution was outlawing abortion—the women at clinics were people like Norma, who really needed help. What she wanted was for women to have equality, to have what they needed to make good choices for their families—not fewer choices.
There is often a lot of polarization in the national abortion debate. Are there any things you would like people to know more about abortion?
Yeah. It is not for every woman to be a mom. Not every woman needs to start a family. They’re not letting people live their life the way they should. They’re pushing us back 50 years. I don’t understand why they would want to take control of our bodies and take control of our lives like that, because that’s what they’re doing.
And they’re not accountable. They must be held accountable. It is up to them to take action to make the situation better for the woman, not to blame her. She’s punished to have a life and to have sex and to have a relationship with someone. It’s kind of sad how it turns out. All of it falls on the woman.