Sarah Weddington, the lawyer who in 1973 won Roe v. Wade
Sue De Lapa

She Won Roe v. Wade: Sarah Weddington was just 27, and the youngest person ever to argue a case before the U.S. Supreme Court, when she faced the nine male justices in the case of Roe v. Wade. Their 7-2 vote, announced January 22, 1973, invalidated all laws anywhere in the nation that made abortion illegal.

(Abortion was already legal in California due to a law signed in 1967 by then-Gov. Ronald Reagan, who later, while president, opposed Roe v. Wade.)

“If anybody had said to me, ‘You will still be talking about this in 35 years,’ I would never have believed that,” Weddington told me on Betty Stephens‘ sunny Hope Ranch patio the other day.

Yet it’s still being argued far and wide and Weddington predicts that it will be one of the key 2008 presidential campaign issues, along with the war and the economy. The question hovers: Will Roe v. Wade be overturned now that the court seems to have a majority, or near majority to do so? But she said Roe v. Wade is not in jeopardy this year, because no case challenging it is poised to come before the Supreme Court in 2008.

Weddington, who still lives in Austin, Texas, where she was living back then, believes that at least one justice is likely to retire in the next four years, giving whomever is president a key appointment to the court.

The Republican presidential nominee-apparent, Sen. John McCain, is anti-choice, while Democratic contenders Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are pro-choice.

Was this beautiful young lawyer frightened when she faced the justices? “Scared? Of course. If you’re not scared you’re not sensible.”

The anonymous “Roe” in the case, who claimed she had been raped, never had an abortion and gave birth to a child before the case was decided. Opponents of Roe v. Wade have objected that the decision lacked a solid Constitutional basis. In recent years, “Roe,” Norma McCorvey, has joined the anti-abortion movement and barnstormed the nation speaking against the decision. She moved to reopen the case but a court refused, saying that it was moot.

Weddington, a University of Texas law school graduate, was elected to the Texas legislature in late 1972 and was sitting in her office a few weeks later when the New York Times called with the astonishing news. She’d won. Women had won.

Weddington was re-elected three times before leaving to become the first woman general counsel for the U.S. Department of Agriculture under President Jimmy Carter. “I did a lot of work trying to save wild and scenic rivers.” Then she went to the White House as an assistant to the president. “Then Carter lost and we left.”

Looking back, the soft-spoken Weddington said, “It was a time when women were challenging restrictions and opening opportunities. I was part of that generation. Women couldn’t even get a credit card in their own names. At the University of Texas (in the mid-1960s) the policy was that no woman could be given birth control unless it was within six weeks of a wedding date.”

She started out as a primary school teacher but soon saw her future as an attorney. She wrote a 1992 book about the case: A Question of Choice: The Lawyer Who Won Roe v. Wade, and spends her time lecturing and teaching at the U of Texas.

Correction: This story has been amended to correct the publication date of Weddington’s book.


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