This month, on Jan. 22, we mark the 49th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion in the United States. It’s been called the most significant of the 20th century—certainly it was the most significant for women.
The case was argued by a 26-year-old female lawyer from Texas: Sarah Weddington, in her first appearance before the Court. Female lawyers were so rare in those days that the Supreme Court lawyers lounge didn’t even have a ladies’ room. There were no female judges; Weddington faced a wall of older white men.
Almost five decades after the decision, Sarah Weddington died at her home in Austin on Dec. 26, 2021, at age 76, after a period of declining health.
In the years after winning this monumental case, Weddington continued to make waves in the legal world. She taught leadership at the University of Texas; wrote and spoke nationwide; and educated young women and men on their rights and responsibilities, as well as the fragile nature of progress without vigilance.
In honor of Weddington’s death, I invite you to revisit this 2011 interview from my radio show, “Equal Time with Martha Burk,” in which I took a look back—and a look forward—with this tireless advocate for women.
Rest in power, Sarah Weddington.
This interview has been edited and excerpted for clarity. Listen to Burk and Weddington’s full 27-minute interview here.
Martha Burk: When you argued the case, you were a young inexperienced lawyer. Were you scared?
Sarah Weddington: Well, yes. I cared so much about the result. And there were so many lawyers, who had been investing time and effort, who had spent tireless hours—I’d have to give them credit too.
But I was the only person who would be able to speak for the Texas case. I was the only person that would be allowed to speak to the Court for the plaintiffs, asking them to overturn the restrictive Texas law. So it was fear invoking, awe-inspiring and something you just want so much to win you can taste it.
Burk: Tell us how this Texas case happened to get to be the one.
Weddington: Before contraception was legal, there had been a case called Griswold v. Connecticut at the U.S. Supreme Court in 1965. Connecticut had a law that said it is illegal to help a person use contraception. And a woman named Estelle Griswold, who had been director of the New Haven Planned Parenthood, opened up a birth control clinic with Dr. Lee Buxton. They had given a married couple a contraceptive device. They were prosecuted, convicted of being accomplices to the use of a contraceptive device—and this couple was married! Their case went to the U.S. Supreme Court. And for the first time, the Court said there is a right of privacy under the U.S. Constitution, and there are certain things that just should be private decisions.
And then in Baird v. Eisenstadt, the Supreme Court said there’s a right of privacy regarding the use of contraception that also applies to single people making decisions about whether to use contraception.
So we had the knowledge that the Supreme Court had previously said there’s a right of privacy that includes the use of contraception, and we were trying to get them to pull that rubber band a little bit wider, and say it also covers the decision of whether to continue or terminate a pregnancy.
Burk: You won the case 7-2. It seems like every decision that comes out of the Court now is 5-4. Is the Court more politicized now than it was then?
Weddington: I think it definitely is, particularly on the issue of abortion.
Burk: You did something very unusual when you testified against Clarence Thomas. You brought a picture of a pregnant Clarence Thomas to the Senate hearing.
Weddington: Yes. He had made some comments that were so outrageous and controversial, and I was trying to say that if he had ever been in the position to be pregnant, he would have much more sympathy and understanding of the way women feel when they’re pregnant and don’t want to be.
There are so many couples in such dire economic straits—many couples who both have to work to take care of their families, and there is no day care. They are in a real Catch-22. If Thomas could appreciate the position so many are in, he would understand why it should not be his decision, it should not be the government’s decision. They should have a right of privacy to make a private decision of when to continue and when to terminate a pregnancy.
If Clarence Thomas had ever been in the position to be pregnant, he would have much more sympathy and understanding of the way women feel when they’re pregnant and don’t want to be.
Burk: Did the case hang primarily on the right to privacy?
Weddington: Yes. But when you argue a case before the Supreme Court you will argue anything that you think might be possible, so we had many [other possible arguments]—in other words, several parts of the constitution that might apply.
Burk: It seems the opposition is no longer attacking the right to abortion head on—they’re concentrating more on onerous restrictions: waiting periods, mandatory sonograms, clinic size requirements and the like.
Weddington: Most of the opposition in recent years has not concentrated on making abortion illegal. They’re waiting for the Supreme Court to change so they can win. Instead they want to make it unavailable.
I heard a woman say recently, once you know you’re pregnant, you can’t think about anything, but what am I going to do? Whether you decide to continue the pregnancy or put the child up for adoption or whether you end up having an abortion—that’s the all-consuming thought. So with [these restrictions], the opposition belittles women and their families as they try to make the best decisions they can for their own situation.
Burk: Given the Roberts Court, do you believe a successful challenge will be argued on the privacy issue or will it be “fetal rights” or even “fertilized egg bills” trying to declare that eggs have the same rights as everyone else?
Weddington: Even that would probably have several [affirmative] votes on the Court. But the voters have turned down similar laws, most recently in Mississippi. So the voters have said there are some things you should not have the government deciding. I trust the voters on those cases more than I do the U.S. Supreme Court.
Burk: Do you see the fervor in young people today? Or do they think we’ve got their rights won?
Weddington: I do see young people trying to help, supporting Planned Parenthood. But I’d say far greater numbers are having such a hard time just going to work, getting money for school and the like. So it’s harder for them, but I wish somehow we could get their attention.
Part of it is for young people to know what they have now that women didn’t have before. We never want to go back to the way it was. We don’t have equal rights in the U.S. Constitution. So anything that we have can be gone.
We really need the help of voters and of younger people to save their ability to make their own choices.
Burk: You teach leadership at the University of Texas. If you could give only one piece of advice to young people today, what would it be?
Weddington: Leadership is about leaving your thumb print—a concept of trying to leave the world a better place for others. So I would say to young people, ask yourself: What can I do and how can I leave the world a better place than I found it?