Sarah Weddington, who as a young lawyer from Texas won the Roe v. Wade case at the U.S. Supreme Court, is being remembered this week as a champion of feminism whose work impacted the nation’s politics as views shifted on abortion. She died Sunday at age 76.
Weddington was 26 when she successfully argued the case that legalized the right to abortion throughout the United States. The Supreme Court’s ruling in 1973 cemented her place in history.
“I just see her role at that time as being so courageous,” said Sarah Wheat, a spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas. “For all of us who work in what is, you know — it can be a very challenging field — I feel like that’s a lesson she has shared with me and so many others.”
Roe v. Wade changed the alignment of the major political parties and helped define the playbook U.S. presidents would have to follow to confirm their Supreme Court nominees, said Florida State University law professor Mary Ziegler, who specializes in the legal history of reproduction.
Weddington was “one important part of a bigger picture,” Ziegler said. “She was instrumental in reframing how abortion rights are understood.”
Prior to the Roe decision, the coalition in favor of abortion rights included family planning advocates, medical professionals concerned about the consequences of so-called back alley abortions and groups that favored curbs on population growth. Roe validated the notion of a woman’s right to have an abortion.
The Supreme Court decided the right to privacy under the U.S. Constitution was “broad enough to encompass a woman’s decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy,” Justice Harry Blackmun — nominated by Republican President Richard Nixon — wrote in the 7-2 decision.
Longtime women’s rights lawyer Judy Waxman witnessed part of the Roe arguments. In framing the question as a matter of individual self-determination, Weddington “really stood up for the rights of women to control their destiny,” Waxman said.
“Some people said, “The issue is over now, and others said, `No it’s just beginning,”‘ Waxman said.
It was far from over.
Abortion rights has since become one of the most divisive issues in American politics, and Weddington’s death comes as it is again reaching a decisive point before the nation’s highest court. The Supreme Court is considering a case over Mississippi’s ban on abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy that could undermine Roe and the court’s 1992 ruling in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which allow states to regulate but not ban abortion up until the point of fetal viability, at roughly 24 weeks. A decision is not expected until spring.
In Texas, a separate law that took effect in September has banned most abortions in the state, meaning some patients have traveled hundreds of miles to Louisiana, Oklahoma and other states for the procedure.
The Supreme Court ruled in December that the law could stand under its unusual structure of allowing lawsuits against abortion clinics and anyone who “aids or abets” the procedure to be performed after cardiac activity is detected in an embryo, which is at around the sixth week of pregnancy and before some women even know they’re pregnant.
Ruth Pennebaker, 72, had an abortion in Texas in 1974, just over a year after the Supreme Court made it legal. She said having the freedom to make her choice safely allowed her to finish her studies at the University of Texas School of Law and build a life with her husband of almost 50 years, with two children and four grandchildren. Pennebaker, who became an author and columnist, said Weddington and her co-counsel, Linda Coffee, were inspiring.
“She was a 26-year-old lawyer who had never tried a case before the Supreme Court,” Pennebaker said. “That two people could make such a difference in the world. I think for those of us who have seen more history, things that can be seen as progress are not necessarily a given. Things can be taken away.”
Conservatives are now rallying behind that principle.
Carol Tobias, president of the National Right to Life Committee, said Weddington’s legacy can be summed up in millions of abortions. As medical science advances, Tobias said, Weddington’s arguments will find less support.
“The technology is proving that these are human beings,” Tobias said, “and they just can’t be swept under the rug with some private rights issues.”
In January 1973, fresh off her Supreme Court victory, Weddington was sworn in as a Democratic Texas state representative for Austin. One of the other six female members of the Texas House — which at the time was its largest group of women ever — was Eddie Bernice Johnson, who has been a member of Congress since 1993.
As state lawmakers, Johnson said she and Weddington worked with other female legislators, including one Republican, to advocate for women’s rights. That included passing a law that allowed women to obtain credit on their own, without needing a husband to cosign.
Policies affecting women were personal to Weddington. While in law school at the University of Texas, she became pregnant and felt unprepared. Abortion was illegal in Texas, so she and her boyfriend — whom she would later marry — drove to Mexico for the procedure.
After leaving the Legislature, Weddington went on to become a White House advisor on women’s issues to President Jimmy Carter.
“She was widely celebrated, but it didn’t seem to alter her in any way in terms of getting a big head. She was very humble and quietly worked on these issues,” Johnson said.
Johnson — the first African American and woman to chair the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology — announced she is retiring from Congress after this year. She doesn’t want Weddington’s work and legacy to fall by the wayside.
“We don’t know what the ruling with the Supreme Court will be, but it doesn’t look good,” Johnson said. “But I don’t know that any woman should give up at that point, to say, `That is just the way it is.’ I think we need to re-engender our spirit and efforts to let this nation know we do not intend for these men to make our decisions.”
Associated Press writers Jake Bleiberg in Dallas and Alexandra Jaffe in Washington contributed to this report. Alonso-Zaldivar reported from Washington. Coronado is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.