Sarah Weddington and Roe v. Wade

“I never thought we would be talking about it this much later,” said Sarah Weddington, 67, one of the lawyers who argued the landmark case Roe v. Wade that legalized abortion. “We don’t talk about contraception much anymore and that was ’65.”

Photo: The Austin Chronicle

On Wednesday, November 28, 2012 Northwestern University College Feminists sponsored a talk by Weddington at Harris Hall to discuss Roe v. Wade, feminism and her career. Roe v. Wade will have its 40th anniversary this January.

The daughter of a Methodist preacher, Weddington says that when she was attending college at McMurry University in Abilene, Texas in the 1960s women could be secretaries, teachers or nurses. Weddington never saw herself going to law school, “I thought I was going to make eighth graders love Beowulf,” said Weddington. “But flexibility is a key course correction. You can’t sit here tonight and see what path you’re life is gonna take.”

Weddington recalled a conversation where she spoke to the then president of McMurry University about potentially applying to law school. She said his exact words were “No woman from this university has ever applied to law school and you better not do it.”

She made the decision to apply to law school and in 1964 she was one of five women who matriculated University of Texas Law School out of a class of 120.

Weddington first got involved with issues like contraception and abortion during law school. At the University of Texas “no one was allowed contraception unless they could prove there were within six weeks of marriage. This was because at the time you needed to be taking contraception for six weeks to have protection for your wedding night,” said Weddington.

When “Our Bodies, Ourselves” a book about women’s sexuality was first published in 1971 Weddington said that it was a book that women would take it into closets and read with flashlights because they were afraid of the stigma of reading such feminist literature. The book, now in its 9th edition covers issues ranging from menopause to birth control to gender identity.

Weddington took on the Roe v. Wade case with Linda Coffee, another attorney, in 1969 when she was 24-years old. She was a recently elected legislator when she heard about a group of University of Texas graduate students who wanted to know what the legal implications were if they shared information about illegal or (in some states) legal abortions.

In 1967, Colorado became the first state to legalize abortion in vases of rape, incest or pregnancies where the mother’s life was in danger. Ronald Regan signed a similar law in California before Roe v. Wade.

Using the 1965 Griswold v. Connecticut Supreme Court case as a basis for her argument, where the Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution protected a right to privacy in regards to a Connecticut law that prohibited the use of contraceptives, Weddington filed and argued on behalf of “Jane Roe” (real name – Norma McCorvey) in a class action suit filed against the district attorney of Dallas County, Henry Wade.

Prior to reaching the Supreme Court the U.S. District Court in Texas ruled, in 1970, against granting an injunction enforcing the laws that barred abortion. Roe v. Wade reached the Supreme Court on appeal in the same year thanks to Wade who said that he would continue to prosecute even though the lower court declared it unconstitutional. “His granddaughter was in my class last year,” said Weddington who is formerly an adjunct professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

The Supreme Court made its decision on Jan. 22, 1973 with a 7-2 decision in favor of Roe stating that abortion is a right of privacy, which is protected under the due process clause of the 14th amendment.

Abortion is now legal, but not easily accessible in many states. There are many state lawmakers who are trying to put more limitations on a woman’s right to choose.  The most recent of these laws is the sonogram requirement 24-hours before a woman can get an abortion or as Weddington referred to it the “jelly on the belly” test.

On Feb. 8, 2012, Texas began enforcing this abortion sonogram law, which requires women to have a sonogram with the images displayed and the heartbeat audible. The doctor must also verbally describe the sonogram even if the woman requests not to hear the results. In early stages of pregnancy, an invasive vaginal probe must be used to get a valid ultrasound.

Roe v. Wade and “Getting the Right to Choose” was picked as one of the 80 Days That Changed the World by Time magazine in 2003. “What I am so conscious of is that I am now historic,” said Weddington. “It’s a funny feeling. I never really set out to be historic…I was just trying to make opportunities for women.”

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