Interview With the Lawyer Who Argued Roe v. Wade



Forty years ago today, lawyer Sarah Weddington got the verdict she wanted in the landmark abortion right's case Roe v. Wade. This morning, I spoke with her in downtown Portland as she prepared to greet a crowd of 1,000 people at a fundraiser for Planned Parenthood Columbia Willamette. Despite Roe v. Wade's protections that abortion should be a safe and legal procedure, Oregon is one of only a small handful of states without laws that restrict and discourage abortion access.

MERCURY: When you were arguing Roe v. Wade, you knew it was a momentous case. But how have the past forty years of abortion politics played out differently than you thought they would be at the time?
SARAH WEDDINGTON: It's been totally different. In 1965, there was a case called Griswold v. Connecticut, about the law that said using contraception was illegal. A doctor had given a married couple a contraceptive device; they were arrested, prosecuted, and convicted. That went to the Supreme Court and the court ruled the right of privacy included the decision about whether or not to use contraception. It was controversial for a little while, but by and large, the American public said, "Well of course!" and just moved on. I thought Roe v. Wade would follow that model. I thought people would be upset about it at first, but they would move onto other things. Instead, in forty years, it's still a front page issue.

Why is that, do you think? Why is abortion still such a controversial issue for Americans?
I don't think it's Americans. If you look at the Pew polls that have come out in the past week, they say Americans are solidly in favor of women making the decision, not politicians. But you do have a core of opposition—whether it's the National Conference of Catholic Bishops or the Tea Party—who use it in a number of ways. I think they truly believe in the position they're advocating, but it's also a way to get people to come to their side from a political perspective.

What were you nervous about while arguing the case? Can you remember what kept you up at night?
As a young lawyer, you want to be sure that you give the very best argument you can. There was a lot of weight on my shoulders, because there were a had been people in almost every state also working on cases—there was one case pending here in Oregon. When I filed it, I thought I was trying to build this mountain. You keep throwing cases on the pile and the more that get up to the Supreme Court, the more likely they are to take a case. I was just trying to get a case up to the Supreme Court.

How old were you at the time?
I filed it when I was 25, I argued it when I was 26 and won it when I was 27. I was young. But I was willing to do it for free and nobody else was.

Geez. How did you wind up involved in the case?
It was a group of people up in Austin, Texas, mostly graduate students [at University of Texas, Austin] who were writers for The Rag, an alternate newspaper. Women kept coming to them and saying, "I need contraception." The [University of Texas] health center had a policy that no one was eligible for contraception unless they certified they were within six weeks of marriage. Because you needed to start the Pill to be ready for your wedding night. The result was a number of unplanned pregnancies. So women were coming this group and saying, "I want an abortion, where can I go?" Eventually, Judy Smith, who was one of the leaders in the group, said, "What we need to do is file a lawsuit! Would you be willing to do that?" And I said, "Yes."

Sarah Weddington in downtown Portland today.
  • Sarah Mirk
  • Sarah Weddington in downtown Portland today.

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