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Jane Roe’s Oldest Daughter Talks Feminism, Abortion, and the Future of Roe v. Wade

15 minute read

It’s an extraordinary moment for abortion in America. For the first time in a generation, the Supreme Court is seriously reconsidering the landmark 1973 precedent that established the constitutional right to abortion, Roe v. Wade.

Earlier this month, the high court allowed a Texas law that directly contradicts Roe by banning abortion after roughly six weeks to stand. And by the end of June, the justices may rule in favor of another Mississippi law that bans abortion after 15 weeks. Or they could decide to overturn 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. But before she died, Norma McCorvey, as she revealed herself to be in the 1980s, left behind three daughters and a story just as fraught as the national debate over the issue that made her famous.

McCorvey’s life included abuse, alcoholism, drug addiction, reform school, changes in sexual identity and religion, and multiple pregnancies. She had already given birth to two daughters by the time she became pregnant with her third child and connected with lawyers seeking to challenge abortion restrictions in 1970. In the time it took her case to wind its way through the courts, she had the third child and put it up for adoption. McCorvey got involved in the abortion rights movement but never really felt accepted. And then in 1995, she shocked the public when she came out against abortion and began vocally opposing the procedure, handing a massive win to anti-abortion activists.

But then last year, a documentary revealed that McCorvey confessed shortly before her death that her apparent switch had never been genuine. 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, now herself a mother of two, has worked as a licensed practical nurse in Texas for nearly 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.

Growing up, what was your relationship like with your mother?

I knew my mother as my sister, basically, because I didn’t see her all the time and I lived with my grandparents. She popped in and popped out until I was about nine, and my grandmother and my grandfather got a divorce. 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.

Then I started seeing her again in my teenage years. Time passed and feelings were better, and then I guess I was 19 and 20 when I started seeing her a lot more because I would go to her. But I did live with her when I was 10 and she was in the pro-choice movement. That was when she was pro-choice. And that’s when I was staying with her.

What did you know about her involvement advocating for 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.

I did go to different house parties with her, that was very different. They’re all talking about abortion and they had the little posters about abortion. It took a little while and then I kind of figured it out. And then I went to rallies with her. I was in the background with Aunt Connie. 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. Then when I was older, I went with her a few times. And that was amazing.

So when did you fully understand what it meant that your mother was Jane Roe?

I was about 12 when I really started understanding what it meant and what it was about. That was pretty hard to understand at first because I knew her as being gay. So it was kind of confusing. Even though I knew she had me, I didn’t understand.

When I realized what a big deal it was and who she was, it was like a secret that you carry around even though most of the people that knew me knew who she was. It was more of a secret because people didn’t accept that type of thing back then. They didn’t talk about it. But when I would go around Norma, it was like all these parties with all these different people and they were talking about it and I saw a lot and learned a lot.

When you were attending these events with your mother, how did you feel about abortion?

It wasn’t so much the topic of abortion as it was Norma was pro-woman. And I understood that and I wanted that because women do need equal rights. And I was always very proud of her for all of that, because she stood up for women, and what women needed and how women should be treated.

I was very proud of her for going the distance and staying in there even when they really didn’t care about her. She kept plugging on and pushing through all the things that was thrown at her. She’d be pulled from one side to the other. She kept hanging in there.

My mom didn’t have a degree. She had no formal education. She was just a survivalist. She could make it work wherever she was, and I mean people liked her. And she really did want what was best for women and to get equal for anything. I always always appreciated that from her.

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Eventually your mother switched over and started advocating against abortion rights. What did you make of that change?

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. I think people made her feel so guilty about her choices in life and who she was and what she did. I think it was a cross between her doing drugs and people putting her down and making her feel guilty. 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. I mean, they were good to her. I’ve never been faced with that. But I want my choice. 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.

How did your experience getting to know your mother and her history shape your own views on abortion?

My entire life I was around real strong women. Norma was one of the strongest women I knew and she fought for everything that was right for women. 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. And I was always proud of her for not worrying about that and just moving forward and trying to to help everybody.

And it shaped me because we have come so far. I went from being raised but my grandparent who was 40 years old when she got me. She died at 90. That was the [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.

My girls are the same way. My girls are very strong. And they know they have to function on their own and not depend on anybody else to get through life. And that’s the way we all are.

So the Supreme Court recently heard arguments in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the case about a Mississippi law that is challenging Roe v. Wade. How did you feel listening to those arguments?

At 15 weeks … You don’t even have time. That’s totally insane. It gives you no time for anything. And then if they overturn Roe v. Wade, a lot of places will not have any 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.

During the Dobbs arguments, Justice Amy Coney Barrett questioned why it would be an issue to have people carry unwanted pregnancies to term because they could put the children up for adoption. Given your experience, what did you think of that comment?

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 know, I was one of the lucky ones. 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. My sisters were both adopted out too. 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. This is one of the biggest things in life that can affect your life. 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.

Another one of the justices, Brett Kavanaugh, suggested during the oral arguments that the Supreme Court should let the states choose what to do about abortion. That would allow some states to keep abortion legal while many others would move to ban abortion 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 want to control our bodies and our lives. That’s not right. That just can’t happen. I don’t understand how it can happen.

Your state of Texas passed a law that prohibits abortions after about six weeks and allows private citizens to sue if they think someone is violating that. How do you feel about that law being in effect?

If you even mention anything like that, they can sue you. That’s insane putting it in the people’s hands. And people are vicious or you might have said something before and they turn that on 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. All of it is just insane. I just can’t believe that’s happened to us. It scares me for my kids. It scares me as a health care worker thinking about it. That’s why I’m not working with OB/GYNs right now. Because of my affiliation 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. Wade and prevent states from passing laws that ban abortion. What do you think of that idea?

I would rather that. That would be the ultimate, so they don’t have to keep revisiting this. If they overturn 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. A lot more people are going to die that way without the health care.

Another tactic some liberals have talked about is expanding the number of justices on the Supreme Court as a response to the partisan nature of the nomination process in recent years that resulted in the current 6-3 conservative majority. Would you support changing the size of the Court?

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.

What do you think your mother would think of the abortion cases that have been in front of the Supreme Court this year?

My mom’s perspective on abortion changed a lot over her life. Everyone who was interested in her wanted her to change, to represent what they wanted, so she was constantly changing. She had a lot of demons.

Norma spent time during her life working at abortion clinics, helping patients, and she was upset when she saw women who needed multiple abortions. 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.

The national debate around abortion is often very polarized. When we talk about abortion now, are there things that you wish people understood more?

Yeah. Not every woman is meant to be a mother. And not every woman has to have 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. Men need to be accountable. They need to do something on that end of it to help the woman and not just make it all her problem, and all her fault, and put so much guilt on the woman for taking care of herself. 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. It all falls back on the woman.

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Write to Abigail Abrams at abigail.abrams@time.com