Interview: Sarah Weddington

  • Share
  • Read Later

Weddington (second from left) on the first day of the trial, December 13, 1971. With her from left: her then-husband, Texas congressman George Mahon and her mother

In 1972, Sarah Weddington, then a 26-year-old attorney, appeared before the U.S. Supreme Court and successfully argued Roe v. Wade. On the 30th anniversary of that ruling, Weddington spoke with about the decision that changed her life — and the lives of millions of American women.

After arguing Roe v. Wade, Weddington was elected to three terms in the Texas House of Representatives. She also served as assistant to President Jimmy Carter from 1978 to 1981. She is now a speaker, attorney and adjunct professor of pre-law at the University of Texas at Austin.

Q: How did you get involved in the Roe case?

I was part of a group of graduate students at University of Texas at Austin, where, like at many other schools, we were gathering information about abortion providers both in places where abortion was legal — like California and New York — and also in places where it wasn't legal, like Mexico and Texas. When people called for information on providers, we wanted to give them the names of the safest places.

We wanted to distribute the provider information to the newspapers, but we were worried that we might be charged as accomplices in abortions — which was an actual threat back then — if we spread the word. When I went to the library, to see exactly where the laws stood, I started finding cases challenging the anti-abortion statutes in various states, including the Griswold case. And we decided we would file a lawsuit challenging the Texas statutes. Lots of people ask me why the case fell to me. It's because this group decided we wanted a woman to take it, and we also wanted someone who'd do it for free.

Soon after that, a young pregnant woman came to an attorney in Texas and he told her, look, if you want to do an adoption, I can help you. If you want an abortion, I can't help you, but I can send you to two women lawyers (myself and my friend Linda Coffee). That woman contacted us and she became Jane Roe.

Q: What was it like, appearing before the Supreme Court at the age of 26?

The first time I appeared before the Court was in '71, then again in the fall of '72. The decision came down in January 1973. So I was 26 and 27.

There I was, getting ready to argue my very first contested case — and it's before the United States Supreme Court. I'll never forget the morning of oral arguments. I got up really early and headed over to put the last touches on my argument. There was a sense of majesty, walking up those stairs, my steps echoing on the marble. I went to the lawyers' lounge — to go over my argument. I wanted to make a last stop before I went in — but there was no ladies' room in the lawyer's lounge. I think they just put one in a few years ago.

When you get to your seat in this beautiful courtroom, there is a handmade goose quill pen waiting for you at your seat. Then the clerk comes out and announces the Justices, who come in through a velvet curtain. The courtroom was packed; the pressroom was packed. Every seat was filled.

I really had no idea if I'd won or lost when I left the court. I went back to Texas and ran for state legislature, so by the time the decision came down, January 22nd of 1973, I was working at the legislature. A reporter called from the New York Times and asked my assistant if I had a comment about Roe, and the assistant asked, "Should she?" So that's how we found out we'd won the case 7-2. The Supreme Court sent me a telegram — they sent it COD, or collect — telling me they would send the opinion. I didn't want to wait, so called someone I knew in Washington and sent them over to the courthouse to read the opinion.

Q: How did your life change after the decision came down?

When I heard we'd won, it was such a thrill. In the short run, very little changed. I was still in the legislature. I didn't have to keep working on the case, so that was good. But I continued to work on women's issues and practicing law. In the long run, the perspective is different. I know my life has had an impact. No matter what else I do, my obituary is going to start, "Roe v. Wade attorney." In a way, it's so unnatural to have done what will define your life when you're 26, 27. But I don't think I'll ever top it.

Q: Norma McCorvey, the young pregnant woman who was the "Roe" in Roe v. Wade, has undergone a dramatic transformation from pro-choice poster child to pro-life activist. Do you maintain contact with her? What was your relationship like during the trial? Was there any indication she was not committed to her decision?

When I first met her, she was pregnant, she wanted an abortion and she said she wanted help. And for 25 years after the case, she was pro-choice, and she spoke out about that. I haven't had any contact with her since August 1995 — when she decided she was opposed to Roe. But Roe v. Wade was a class action suit, on behalf of all women who wanted to have an abortion.

Q: Roe was argued primarily as a privacy rights case. Do you believe that any successful challenge will be argued under the same umbrella?

Well, honestly, we pled it from every angle we could, including using the 9th and the14th amendments. The springboard for Roe was Griswold vs. Connecticut, which involved a woman, Griswold, who as head of Planned Parenthood of Connecticut, had given a married couple a contraceptive device. She was tried and convicted as an accomplice in distributing a contraceptive device. The Supreme Court ruled eventually that the couple's right to privacy precluded the state from dictating whether they would or would not have a baby.

I think that lawyers challenging Roe would go at it every way they could — and they'd especially pick up on the dissent on Roe v. Wade, in which Rehnquist wrote there is no right to privacy in the Constitution, that the court made it up.

Q: The statutes established in Roe v. Wade have taken some hits over the past 30 years. Do you feel the ruling will stand for another 30 years?

There's part of me that thinks, "well, of course the ruling will stand because..." But then I have a hard time finding what comes after "because."

I despair when I look at who has the power today. I'm just waiting for reinforcements: the public has taken the right to abortion for granted, but I believe the opposition will actually be what convinces the American people to fight back.

Q: New poll numbers from the Alan Guttmacher Institute show that support for abortion rights are waning somewhat, down from a high point in the early 1990s. What do you think is at the root of this shift?

I think Americans don't want the government making the decision for us, but we want the decision to be made carefully. So when people are asked about a 24-hour waiting period, they think, well, sure, a woman should have to wait to make sure she's making the right decision. But the problem is those waiting periods are instituted primarily in rural areas, by abortion opponents, So for a woman who's traveled for the procedure, that's another day of traveling and related expenses. These little nuances can have a major impact on reproductive rights, but the public doesn't see them as major obstacles unless they consider them in context of other restrictions. So they're asked if they object, and they think, why should I?

Q: You're a professor now. Do students in your classes ask a lot of questions about Roe v. Wade? Do you sense people born after 1973 have a sense of what it was like pre-Roe?

There are very few young people who are activists in the same way we were. These young women just haven't had the same resistance as we did, but at the same time they are far more determined to make their own decisions than we were.

It's a different time today. The early 1970s were such a wonderful time for activist women. We were asking all sorts of questions that seem ludicrous now: why do high school girls play half court basketball? Why do women in Texas get fired when they get pregnant? Why do women have to have a husband or father sign for them in order to get credit? We were arguing about abortion, but women's issues are part of a big wheel, and reproductive rights are only one part of a larger consciousness — if you can't decide this for yourself, you can never have control over the rest of your life.