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For Sarah Weddington (1945-2021), RIP = Rest In Power.

Posted on | December 30, 2021 | 2 Comments

Mike Magee

“I am sure when my obituary is written, the lead paragraph will be about Roe v. Wade. I thought, over a period of time, that the right of a woman to make a decision about what she would do in a particular pregnancy would be accepted, that by this time, the 30th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the controversy over abortion would have gradually faded away like the closing scenes of a movie and we could go on to other issues. I was wrong.”  Sarah Weddington, 2003.

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Sarah Catherine Ragle Weddington died in her home in Austin, Texas on December 27, 2021. She was 76. She was born in Abilene, Texas on February 5, 1945, the daughter of a Methodist minister father and a college business professor mother.

Bright and inquisitive, she graduated from small Methodist McMurry College magna cum laude at the age of 19, and enrolled at the University of Texas at Austin Law School. She was one of 40 women in a school of 1,600 students. Her course work was briefly interrupted in her final year, at age 22, by an unwanted pregnancy. With her soon to be law student husband, Ron Weddington, she traveled to Mexico for what she later described in a 1992 autobiography as a “safe abortion.” She later remembered her last thoughts as they administered her anesthesia, “I hope I don’t die, and I pray that no one ever finds out about this.”

After passing the Texas bar, she hung out a shingle in Austin, Texas where she supported herself by writing wills, and resolving uncontested divorces. She had no trial experience, but was fascinated by women’s rights issues, and with several other women in the area, advised college women which doctors in the area might be willing to perform abortions, currently illegal in the state unless to save the life of the mother.

At the time, she was asked by one student whether she could be prosecuted for helping a friend receive an abortion. Not knowing the answer, she turned to a more experienced former fellow student and friend, Linda Coffee, who was clerking for a federal district judge in Dallas. At the same time, Coffee was advising a pregnant woman named Norma McCorvey, who had already had two children given up to adoption, and was pursuing an illegal abortion as a solution to a third unwanted pregnancy.

In December 1969, Coffee wrote Weddington, “Would you consider being co-counsel in the event that a suit is actually filed? I have always found that it is a great deal more fun to work with someone on a lawsuit of this nature.” Two months later, the new legal team met in a pizza shop with McCorvey, soon to be retitled Jane Roe, and a challenge to the Texas anti-abortion law, and to Dallas District Attorney, Henry Wade, was born.

In December 1971, when Sarah Weddington, age 26, stood before the Justices of the Supreme Court to argue Roe v. Wade, she had never tried a legal case. The lawyer’s lounge at the Court didn’t even have a women’s rest room. She felt the full weight of responsibility on her young shoulders. She later recalled, “I cared so much about the result. 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.” In October 1972, she was back again to field the all male Court’s questions.

One year later, her name would be forever recorded in legal history, and the case itself would be one of the most cited precedents ever to appear in American legal annals. The 7-2 majority decision leaned heavily of the First, Fourth, Ninth and Fourteenth Amendments, and resulted in a cascading reversal of existing state laws outlawing abortion in the years that followed.

Initially widely praised and supported by both medical and religious organizations, within five years, the reversal of Roe v. Wade became the rallying call and fundraising organizing tool of a new evangelical political movement self-titled, the Moral Majority. As it rose, so did the number and seriousness of death threats to the young lawyer.

What became of Sarah Weddington? She was Texan through and through, part of a group of notable women achievers of the time, sometimes referred to as the “Great Austin Matriarchy”which included Barbara Jordan, Sissy Farenthold, Ann Richards, Molly Ivins, and Liz Carpenter. In 1972, while awaiting the epic decision, she ran for a seat in the 150-member Texas House of Representatives and won, serving three successive terms. Her legislative aide at the time was none other than the future Texas Governor, Ann Richards. Three years later, she was labeled “the hardest working member of the house.” Over the years that followed, she served in President Jimmy Carter’s administration on women’s issues, helped advance the movement to approve the Equal Rights Amendment, and ultimately settled in as the first female director of Federal Government Relations for the state of Texas.

Of hiding her own abortion, she later said, “For a lot of years, that was exactly the way I felt. Now there’s a major push to encourage women to tell their stories so people will realize that it is not a shameful thing. One out of every five women will have an abortion.”

Four years ago, she was asked to predict the staying power of the Roe v. Wade decision. She said at the time, “If Gorsuch’s nomination is approved, will abortion be illegal the next day? No. One new judge won’t necessarily make much difference. But two or three might.”

Up to her death, she was known for advocacy. Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, marked her loss with three simple words: “Rest in power.”

Comments

2 Responses to “For Sarah Weddington (1945-2021), RIP = Rest In Power.”

  1. Josh Sands
    December 31st, 2021 @ 10:42 am

    Mike,
    Thanks for this engaging, well written, interesting information that is part of the Roe v Wade story. I greatly appreciate how you enrich my reading of history. This comment also applies to the Eisenhower piece and your blog in general. Well done!
    Josh

  2. Mike Magee
    December 31st, 2021 @ 10:51 am

    Thanks so much, Josh! Your feedback and encouragement couldn’t be more appreciated!

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