Roe v. Wade lawyer surprised the battle rages on

Feb. 25, 2013 @ 10:18 PM

Sarah Weddington spoke Monday evening to an audience at Duke University composed mostly of young women who have only known a world where abortion is legal.

More than 40 years ago, Weddington spoke to a Supreme Court to convince the justices to make abortion legal.

The then-26-year-old Texas lawyer did convince them, and won the decision that came to be known as Roe v. Wade. Forty years later, she finds it difficult to believe that the issue of the legality of abortion rages on.

 “I assumed it would take just a little time before the ruling was accepted,” Weddington said during a rambling, folksy lecture at Duke’s Reynolds Theater.

“I assumed it would be like the right to contraception, something taken for granted — at least until recently. So it’s really surprising we are at the point now that there is still so much controversy about it. I would not have believed that.”

Weddington, now a law professor at the University of Texas in Austin, is nevertheless not concerned that the Roe v. Wade ruling will be overturned — at least not in the immediate future.

“With President Obama in the White House, I think any appointments to the Supreme Court will be justices who support abortion rights,” she said.

The real question today, Weddington explained, is not the legality of abortion, but access to the procedure.

“That’s what I am worried about,” she said. “I’m worried about whether or not abortion will be available. There have been so many restrictions put on it by so many states, that’s where the fight is going to be — over the question of access.”

Speaking with a soft Texas drawl, Weddington recalled how she — almost inadvertently — became involved with the landmark case. She was part of a group of female graduate students who had been reading “Our Bodies, Ourselves,” a trailblazing book about women’s health and sexuality, and began researching ways to challenge various anti-abortion statutes. They asked Weddington to be their lawyer.

“I had never done a contested case,” Weddington said. “So, I asked, ‘Why do you want me?’”

She was told: “You were the only woman lawyer we had heard of,” Weddington said. “And we needed someone who would do it for free.”

The night before she argued the case at the Supreme Court, Weddington recalled that she couldn’t sleep. “I was very conscious that the fate of many women rested on my argument,” she said.

In the court, “I was so nervous until I stood up. Then I was totally calm.”

She found out months later that she had won the case — and thus rendered 46 state anti-abortion laws unconstitutional — when her assistant received a call from a reporter, asking “if Miss Weddington had any comment.”

That decision, she knows now, has made her part of history, although “that’s a funny feeling. I don’t feel historic, but I guess maybe I am.”

To the students in the audience, she was.

During the question-and-answer period following the lecture, one Duke student thanked Weddington profusely because “you paved the way for us.”