Sarah Weddington: On the 37th Anniversary of Roe v. Wade
The author, who learned in high school about the Supreme Court case that gave women reproductive choice and control over their lives, talks to the lawyer who won that victory.
Yesterday, I had an opportunity to sit down with Sarah Weddington, the attorney who successfully represented Jane Roe in Roe v. Wade. I can remember learning about the landmark case in my high school American Government class and being mesmerized by the incredible impact of one Supreme Court decision—and the enormous power of one individual to incite change that affects us all. Today, we celebrate with her the 37th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision that made choice possible for women.
Q. Exactly what were you doing 37 years ago when the Supreme Court decision came in on Roe v. Wade?
A. I was a young lawyer, and I didn’t know if I was winning or losing the case. I was at the Texas capital and the phone rang, and a reporter from The New York Times asked the person who answered the phone, “Does Ms. Weddington have a comment today about Roe v. Wade?” My assistant said, “Should she?” The reporter said, “It was decided today.” My assistant said, “How was it decided?” And the reporter said, “She won it, 7-2.” So, it was a huge, unexpected victory.
It was handed down on the same day that former President Lyndon Johnson died. He got the very top part of the front pages, but I got under the fold. It was a very exciting day.
Q. What was most exciting about hearing the news?
A. There were so many problems for women, but one of them, certainly, was the fact that they didn’t have their own decision-making ability in terms of reproduction. We thought we had won forever—that women were the ones who got to make their basic decisions, not the government. If you had said to me that 37 years later this will be a huge issue and access will be very much under attack, I would never have believed it.
Q. Some people have commented on a surge of anti-choice feeling in the country among younger generations. Do you think younger women take Roe v. Wade and abortion rights for granted?
A. It’s natural for people of all ages and all circumstances to take for granted what they have not experienced. At the time we were working on Roe v. Wade, everybody knew someone who had been to get an illegal abortion, and all the problems associated with that. The doctors in public hospitals in Texas and elsewhere were talking about what they called the “IOB wards”— infected obstetrics wards—where they were trying to save women who had had self-abortion or illegal abortion. It was very much front-and-center for us.
Q. Do you think Stupak was a wake-up call for young Americans?
A. [Stupak] was a wake-up, a rally cry, because it revealed the strength of the opposition of people who say, “No, women should not have access to abortion, and any way we can cut it off, we’re going to do it.” When Stupak came out, you heard a national gasp, as those who are pro-choice saw what was happening.
Q. How important are younger people in the fight for reproductive rights?
A. I don’t think we have the energy that we did 37 years ago, so to some extent, we are relying on younger people to lead the fight from now on—to support pro-choice groups, like Planned Parenthood, like NARAL Pro-Choice America. We need people, every time they vote—and there’s going to be lots of voting coming up this year—to see what the candidate’s positions are on pro-choice issues. And we certainly need people to help us ensure that candidates who are pro-choice get elected. We are trying to reach out and say to people, the opposition is very organized. They’ve got a lot of money behind them. They’ve got a lot of enthusiasm.
When I went to the march in Washington for pro-choice a few years ago , there were a million of us. I think it was the best day—except for when I won Roe v. Wade—because that day, marching in Washington, you saw families, you saw younger people, you just saw wonderful amalgamation of Americans, all there saying, “No! The government should not make our decisions.”
Q. What have your personal thoughts been as you've watched the health care reform debate unfold over the past several months?
A. All of us were dismayed by the process—especially in the Senate. You never knew what these committees or groups of people in back rooms were really talking about. You couldn’t help but be dismayed to see the power of those who say women should have no choice and no access to abortion services.
Q. What do you think will happen with health care reform?
A. The current bill is such a mess right now, I don't think anything's going to happen real quickly on it, so it gives us a bit of time to regroup.
Q. When the Stupak Amendment hit, the Women’s Media Center launched a campaign “Who's to Blame for Stupak?” Who do you feel is to blame for Stupak passing?
A. Everybody’s partially to blame, but the U.S. Catholic bishops were the most important force. Their representatives were meeting with Nancy Pelosi the day before it [Stupak] went on the floor, and they were the ones who were the biggest lobbyists. Then it would be some of the Republicans. Now, there certainly have been pro-choice Republicans, like Barry Goldwater. But right now, the ones who are anti-choice are in control of the Republican Party.
Q. Why is the fight for reproductive choice so important to you?
A. I fought my whole life for women to have choices. If you cannot determine the number and spacing of your children, then you cannot control any of the other parts of your life. The circumstances under which you decide to carry a pregnancy to term should be up to you.
Q. The statutes established in Roe v. Wade have been slowly compromised over the past 37 years. What do you see as the biggest setback to the rights guaranteed by Roe v. Wade?
A. It’s really two-fold. State legislation that limits abortion is a big problem for a lot of women. The second part is the U.S. Supreme Court. As the court has changed, there are more who are not real advocates of Roe v. Wade. You have Scalia, Thomas, Roberts and Alito. They haven’t yet said they want to overturn Roe, but they’ve certainly voted for most of the restrictions. Kennedy is the key vote right now. Whichever side he goes with, that’s the side that’s going to win.
Q. Do you think pro-choicers could ever successfully rescind the Hyde amendment, which bars the use of federal funds to pay for abortions?
A. Oh, I would love to see that happen. It’s one of those things that were passed to make access more difficult, particularly for poorer women. Oh boy, would there be a celebration!!
Q. How do you feel women’s and reproductive rights organizations are doing in impacting the health care reform?
A. I so admire the people who are the leaders in women’s organizations. But they’re struggling to get the message out, and to grab people’s time and attention. I think younger women are often trying to work several jobs, go to school, manage families. While they’re willing to help, their time, attention and money are really at a premium.
Q. You’ve always described yourself as an activist, first. If you could send any message to a young generation of pro-choice women activists, what would it be?
A. First, I would say “thank you, thank you, thank you.” We’re depending on you. Second, I would say that it’s so critical to support pro-choice groups. Pick one or two. Hooking up with a group gives you e-mail information about what’s happening, who’s running, what are the positions of the candidates, what is happening in Congress.
Q. A recent New York magazine article quotes President Obama in a speech to students at Notre Dame saying: “I do not suggest that the debate surrounding abortion can or should go away. No matter how much we may want to fudge it … the fact is that at some level, the views of the two camps are irreconcilable.” Do you agree the debate is irreconcilable?
A. It’s irreconcilable at the very basic level. Bart Stupak said no woman should have access to an abortion. I would never be reconciled with his position. So we should agree to disagree. But let’s agree that the law should not force his opinion on people. He can hold his opinion. He can advocate it in all kinds of ways that are private. His church can do a lot to try to help women who want to continue pregnancies. There are things that he could do that I would certainly think were wonderful. But it’s not to say to women, “I’m going to tell you what to do with reproduction.”
The problem is that Obama seems to have a tendency to want everyone to like him and agree with him, so you read in the paper that he was meeting with anti-choice people on the health care bill. You never read that he was meeting with pro-choice people on the health care bill.
Q. What was the most unlikely conversation you ever had about Roe v. Wade?
A. Barry Goldwater. Barry Goldwater ran for president on the Republican ticket  and was thought of as very conservative, which he was in many, many ways; but he was pro-choice, and he and his wife had helped start a Planned Parenthood in Arizona. They were friends with Margaret Sanger. There were a lot of Republicans who were very supportive of the principle that the government should not make those decisions. Their party has been taken over by people who disagree with what was always basic Republican policy.
Q. Can you believe it’s been 37 years? What does the anniversary mean to you?
A. Yes, I can believe it’s been 37 years. My hair is a different color now. What I’ll be thinking about more than anything else are all the women saying thank you so much for winning that case. We all want to make a difference, and I know I have, for lots of people. There are certainly those who hate me, but there are so many who rely on Roe v. Wade and want that principle of choice to be available for future generations. I’m so conscious of the fact that it will be younger people who will have the lead roles in what happens. Visit www.choicematters.us and other Web sites on this very important day and let’s celebrate together.
Q. Is there anything else you’d like to say to the WMC audience?
A. I think media is the future. Not so much the newspapers—or radio, television—but the Internet is so important. So I hope you and people of your age will be thinking up new ways to use media to reach out to people and help talk about these issues in a way that has even more power and more impact than what I might say.
Sarah Weddington is an attorney, speaker and adjunct professor of pre-law at the University of Texas at Austin. 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 founder of the Weddington Center.
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