The way Norma McCorvey’s eldest daughter sees it, her late mother — better known as ‘Jane Roe’ in the landmark Roe v. Wade abortion rights decision — spent her life on her own. trying to help women, but found herself caught in a battle between movements wanting to use her.
“Because of the role she played in Roe, everyone wanted a piece of her, they didn’t really want her to say what she wanted, but they wanted something from her,” said Melissa Mills, the only one of McCorvey’s three daughters who had a relationship with their biological mother.
McCorvey and Roe v. Wade, a case that originated in Dallas County, is making headlines as the U.S. Supreme Court prepares to hand down its decision on an abortion law challenge in the Mississippi that should overturn the 1973 ruling that established federal abortion rights.
McCorvey was a complicated figure in a court case that became a touchstone in the culture wars, celebrated by champions as an affirmation of women’s freedom and denounced by opponents as legalizing the killing of the unborn child.
She wasn’t the first plaintiff to challenge a state abortion law, but Roe v. Wade was the first such case to work its way through the Supreme Court appeals process. She used the pseudonym Jane Roe to protect her privacy. The defendant, Wade, was Dallas County Attorney Henry Wade, an official responsible for enforcing abortion laws in Texas.
“Pro-choice people wanted her because she was the plantiff, but they didn’t want her to say anything, they didn’t want her to have a voice. And pro-life people wanted her because it made them look good because they tamed the devil, they made her look like the devil,” Mills said in an interview with The Dallas Morning News.
McCorvey was often silenced by abortion rights advocates, Mills said, while those opposed to abortion wanted her to change.
“She didn’t fit anyone’s mold and it was hard for her on both sides. For pro-choice she wasn’t rich or educated or well-spoken, all those things. For pro-life people, she was gay, an alcoholic, she had done drugs most of her life, she wanted an abortion, she wanted women to have the things they needed to take care of themselves,” said Mills, a nurse and mother, who lives near Houston.
McCorvey spoke out about his affiliation with the anti-abortion movement before he died in 2017 at the age of 69.
Abortion rights activists questioned her motives when McCorvey decamped in 1994, after years as a poster boy for their cause, and was baptized in a swimming pool by evangelical minister Flip Benham, who ran Operation Rescue, which opposes abortion rights.
“I think they didn’t do it well, really. They were a little cruel to her on the pro-choice side, pro-life was really good for her but she had to give up her existence of who she had to be on the pro-life side. She couldn’t be gay,” Mills said. “It was hard to watch.”
Mills said McCorvey wanted to help women “not go through the things that she’s been through and not feel like they did and not feel unimportant.”
“Couldn’t take care of herself financially”
Mills laments that the human elements behind the Roe case are often overshadowed by politics.
Homeless and destitute and in her third pregnancy, McCorvey wanted to have an abortion, but Texas law prohibited the procedure at the time. McCorvey would be referred to lawyers to help him get one.
The lawyers she would meet during Roe, Texans Linda Coffee and Sarah Weddington, took on her case in 1970, but the final Supreme Court decision wasn’t made until 1973 and McCorvey never got the chance. abortion despite her desire to obtain one. At the time of the decision, McCorvey’s child was 2 years old and had been adopted.
“I think she had hope. I really do. And she wanted it so badly,” Mills said of her mother’s desire for an abortion.
Instead, McCorvey gave her third daughter, Shelley Thornton, up for adoption as she did her first two daughters.
“She couldn’t take care of herself financially. Let alone a child and then work the hours she worked,” Mills said.
McCorvey’s mother adopted Mills and raised her as her own. McCorvey would be in and out of her life as a sister figure, eventually remaining close in McCorvey’s later years.
His mother was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness, while Mills was raised as a Baptist and considers herself a Christian but does not attend any particular church. Mills says the grandmother who raised her held traditional values, while her birth mother wanted to be anything but “barefoot and pregnant.”
Over time, McCorvey eventually found herself on both sides of the abortion battle, her views seeming to shift from advocating for abortion rights to opposing them. But Mills said her mother was consistent on one thing – she was always “pro-woman”.
Another constant cited by Mills was that McCorvey never intended the procedure to be “abused”.
“I don’t think she wanted it to be abused by doctors or by patients,” Mills said, explaining that she supports limits on late-term abortions.
“To me, that means she didn’t like the way the healthcare part, the doctor, the doctors allowed certain things. You know what I mean? They let too many months pass and they let some people come back to have more than one procedure,” Mills said.
McCorvey worked for an abortion clinic before becoming an evangelical Christian and speaking out against the procedure. Mills said her mother often saw regular “clients” and thought some abortions were performed too late in gestational development.
“It’s kind of crazy that they keep doing abortions at the end of the second trimester, you know, at the beginning of the third trimester. And that’s just crazy,” she said.
Mills argues that a six-week or 15-week ban is too soon, but still thinks there should be guidelines. She cited examples such as maternal age and rape as areas where such restrictions don’t work, drawing on her own experience as a gynecological nurse and her passion for women’s health.
“A woman shouldn’t be told what to do with her body and when to start a family and only start a family by that woman and the doctor, but they need to have guidelines, and they need to have procedures in place,” she said.
Mills thinks abortion should be decided more “on a case-by-case basis,” but with guidelines, including for abortion providers.
“I really believe it’s like any other type of establishment, they have to be controlled. They need those checks and balances. They need people to go there and see what they’re doing. They need to see how they work,” she said.
Mills, however, fears that without legal abortions, people will start harming themselves.
“It’s bad anyway, because if they stop abortions, then we’re going to have all these useless…People, I mean, hurt themselves by killing themselves,” she said.
She also worries that Texas and the nation are not ready to care for infants and children or provide flexibility for working women. She says access to sex education and contraceptives must be a priority.
Abortion, says Mills, is not “cut and dry.”
“Everyone thinks if a person is pro-choice, they think that person believes they should just kill babies. That’s not what it’s about. You know, it’s about of our choice as a woman to know when we are ready to start this family,” she said.
This report contains material from the Dallas Morning News archives.