Supreme Moment

Thirty years after I argued and won Roe v. Wade, the case remains a watershed event in the lives of American women—and for me.

February 2003By Comments

WHEN I LOOK BACK I’M grateful that I grew up in West Texas. It’s a place where people value hardy individualism. People are good neighbors and they live by what they say. I rode horses on those stretched-out plains where the land was big, the sky was big. Nobody ever asked, “Who are your grandparents?” or “Where did they come from?” It didn’t matter. All that mattered was who you were and what you could do. And there was a lot I thought I could do. I grew up in a time when a lot of women were told, as I was, “Women can’t,” “Women shouldn’t,” “Women don’t.” When I was attending McMurry College, in Abilene, I told the dean I wanted to go to law school. He told me, “Well, you can’t.” I said, “Why not? I have really good grades.” He said, “No woman from this college has ever gone to law school. It would be too tough.” So, of course, that was the moment I decided I was going to law school.

When I graduated from UT law school, in 1967, I couldn’t get a job because I was a woman. Here in Austin, there were a lot of women who couldn’t get legal positions because firms weren’t ready to hire women. So many really unjust things stirred our passions, and we felt we had to change them. We realized that the only way to get women’s issues dealt with was to get women elected to the Legislature. Nobody else was going to do it, so we decided to do it ourselves. It really was a dynamic group of women, any one of whom could have run. It just happened that I had a law degree and $100, as I remember, in my savings account, and that’s what the filing fee was. So I ended up being the candidate.

I had been a clerk for the Texas Legislature in 1965, so I’d spent a lot of time typing bills back when they required nine perfect carbon copies. That session, I spent all my breaks watching the Legislature, and I sat there thinking, “I could do that!” I thought I could do it better because a lot of those legislators in 1965 were not, as they say, the brightest bulbs on the block. After I was elected to the House, in 1972, I was able to work well with men perhaps because I had learned leadership in traditional ways, beginning in the Canyon Junior High band; I was the drum major, not the majorette. In the House, I tried to win people’s respect, and I made some wonderful friends on both sides of the aisle. There were some legislators who didn’t want to work with me, and I still remember who they are.

Roe v. Wade began several years earlier, over a conversation at a garage sale. Two friends of mine had been gathering information about where women could go to obtain abortions, which were illegal in Texas then, except to save the life of the mother. They asked me if we could give this information out to women, or could we be prosecuted as accomplices? I didn’t know the answer, but I told them I would look it up in the law library. That led, in a roundabout way, to Roe v. Wade. The reason they came to me was because I was the only woman lawyer they knew. We wanted to keep all of a woman’s options available, and for it to be her choice.

Now if they had said to me, “Would you mind trying a U.S. Supreme Court case?” I would have said, “No way!” But I didn’t know it was a Supreme Court case when I started working on it. I got to try Roe v. Wade. because I was willing to do it for free. Before that, I had only done uncontested divorces, wills for people with no money, and an adoption for my uncle. Luckily, I had help from a law classmate, Linda Coffee, and others. “Jane Roe” was the made-up name for a truly pregnant woman who wanted an abortion. But the case was not just about her; it was a class action for all women who might want the option of abortion. At the U.S. Supreme Court, a lot of the court personnel told me they couldn’t remember anyone that young ever presenting a case. I was 26.

I had had an abortion myself, during my last year in law school. I was not as sophisticated as I should have been about preventing pregnancy. I was seriously dating the man I later married, Ron Weddington, but I was determined to finish law school, and I wanted to put Ron through law school. There were a lot of considerations. And so we decided to have an abortion. You couldn’t look in the phone book then, but Ron found a name of an abortion doctor through a friend. We made an appointment and drove to Mexico. I will never forget following a man in a white guayabera shirt down an alley, and Ron and I having no idea where we were headed. I can still remember going under the anesthetic and then waking up later in a hotel room with Ron. Driving back I felt fine; I didn’t have any complications. But it made me appreciate what other women went through, who did not have someone to go with them or did not have the money to pay for a medically safe abortion, as I did.

Later, I heard stories of women who had not been so lucky. Some had beaten their own abdomens or jumped down stairs to try to induce an abortion. Others had eaten mixtures of chemicals and cleaning products. I’ll never forget seeing a photograph of a woman lying on a black-and-white checkered bathroom floor who had died from having an illegal abortion. Doctors told me about women whom they had seen hemorrhaging or in shock or with infections, who had stuffed all kinds of things into their uteruses because they were desperate to have abortions.

I felt a mix of emotions when I went before the Supreme Court to argue Roe v. Wade. I was scared and felt the weight of needing to win for women. I felt reverence for the Supreme Court and what it represented, and I felt aggrieved. I had gone to the lawyers’ lounge, which is provided for attorneys who will be arguing cases, beforehand to go over my notes one last time. There were photographs of former justices, all of them men. I found that the lounge had only a men’s room. And so I ended up having to find an appropriate facility for women, right before I had to argue my case.

When you walk into the Supreme Court, you sense the majesty in the courtroom. It is an awesome place: half a dozen kinds of marble, very heavy red velvet curtains, benches that look like church pews with fancy padding, a lot of rules about what visitors can and cannot do. You can’t put your arm on the back of the bench, you can’t whisper, you can’t take notes—all kinds of things that are meant to preserve decorum. When I left the court, I didn’t know if I had won or lost. I came back to Austin, finished running for office, and got elected. I was at the Capitol on January 22, 1973—thirty years ago—when a reporter from the New York Times called and said, “Does Mrs. Weddington have a comment today about Roe v. Wade.?” And the assistant said, “Should she?” and the words came back, “It was decided today. She won it seven to two.” That was just so exciting. I think any woman remembers where she was the day she heard that Roe v. Wade. had been decided.

Being on the front lines of such a controversial issue has its pluses and minuses. The plus is the personal satisfaction of knowing that you made a difference for a lot of women. One of the minuses is that I am the recipient of a good amount of hate mail. We keep a file of these letters, which is for a specific purpose; if anything ever happens to me, the police can check that file. I do not ask for a bodyguard, but sometimes a group I am speaking to will have reason to think there might be a problem, and they want to make sure I’m protected. The high point of security was at a college in West Virginia, at a time when abortion was very controversial. As I remember, I had about ten uniformed and seven plainclothes officers around me. But frankly, I think the doctors and the people who work in the clinics and the women who go there deserve a lot more sympathy than I do. Without them, Roe would be empty words on a page.

So here we are talking about something I did thirty years ago. I am sure when my obituary is written, the lead paragraph will be about Roe v. Wade. I thought, over a period of time, that the right of a woman to make a decision about what she would do in a particular pregnancy would be accepted—that by this time, the thirtieth anniversary of Roe v. Wade. , the controversy over abortion would have gradually faded away like the closing scenes of a movie and we could go on to other issues. I was wrong.

Sarah Weddington, 58, teaches at the University of Texas and gives speeches around the country. She lives in Austin.

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