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The oldest daughter of "Jane Roe" reflects on her mother's legacy: "Even though she was strong, she was fragile"

Daughter of Jane Roe speaks about her mother
Daughter of Jane Roe speaks about her mother 05:20

The Justice Department on Thursday filed a suit in a U.S. District Court in Austin against the state of Texas over a new law that bans abortion at the onset of embryonic cardiac activity, usually about six weeks of pregnancy"—before most women know they are pregnant.

In the suit, the Justice Department claims that the law is unconstitutional and violates Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that gave women in the United States the right to legally have an abortion within the first three months. That case changed the lives of so many women but few people know about the woman at the center of it. 

Norma McCorvey — known as "Jane Roe" — was pregnant in 1969 and wanted to terminate her pregnancy.  She gave birth to her third child, a daughter, nearly three years before the final court decision.

Melissa Mills, McCorvey's oldest daughter, spoke to Jan Crawford in her home in Texas for her first television interview for "CBS Mornings." 

"Not everybody's meant to be a mother. And I didn't expect that of her. She was the mother she could be," Mills said. 

Mills recalled that as a young girl she didn't know McCorvey was known to everyone else as "Jane Roe." She would describe McCorvey to be dysfunctional. 

"How would you describe your mother?" Crawford asked.

"She was really funny. She was the life of the party. I didn't think of her as a mother figure, I thought of her more like a sister, because that's how our relationship was," said Mills.

McCorvey didn't raise Mills—instead, she was raised by her maternal grandmother. Mills was almost a teenager when she realized her mother was "Jane Roe" of Roe v. Wade. 

That's when she also learned she had two younger half-sisters: Jennifer Ferguson and Shelley Thornton.

"We were all given up for adoption. But my grandparents adopted me. And the other two were given up at birth. She couldn't take care of herself, much less anybody else," Mills said.

In 2013, the three women met—brought together by journalist Joshua Prager for his upcoming book "The Family Roe: An American Story."

Thornton was the child known as "The Roe Baby" and spoke with Prager. In the book, it is revealed that Thornton refused to meet McCorvey, the woman who told the world that she didn't want her. 

"Shelley never met her.  I think it was just too much. And I understand that. When somebody-- I mean, she wanted to abort her," Mills said. 

"And she told Shelley that she expected her to thank her for not doing so?" Crawford asked.

"Mom had... Mom had a sick sense of humor. I mean, she was, her humor was pretty harsh... And she was mad at Shelley because Shelley wouldn't do a DNA test. And when Shelley wouldn't, it kind of, you know...made her mad," Mills replied. 

As the only daughter who knew McCorvey growing up, Mills vowed she would be different and spent her time focusing on her family. When asked what she is most proud of, Mills broke down in tears and said it's her kids. 

 "Because when you want somethin', you do it," Mills said. 

"And the way you've been able to be the kind of mother that you didn't have?" Crawford asked. "Right," replied Mills.

McCorvey felt like she never fit in and at one point came out against abortion rights.

"Yeah. She felt guilty. And people made her feel bad for the part and the role that she played with the Roe v. Wade case. And all of the babies that were aborted through the years. And people would call her a killer," Mills said. "They called her Satan. They called her all kinds of terrible things. And it was cruel."

McCorvey spent the last two years of her life in Texas, near Mills and her daughters. She died in 2017 at an assisted living center, leaving behind a legacy that is as divisive as ever. Mills said she is "real protective" when it comes to her mother. 

"Like, you, even if your mom has flaws, that's your mom. What was that like for you?" Crawford asked.

"It was hard," Mills broke down. "But yeah, I didn't want anybody to hurt her. And I felt even though she was strong, she was fragile."

More of Jan Crawford's interview with Melissa Mills will run on CBSN starting at 8 a.m. ET. Journalist Joshua Prager will speak to "CBS Mornings" on Monday, September 13.

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