FORTY YEARS AGO this week, a 27-year-old lawyer named Sarah Weddington got the verdict she spent two years fighting for in the landmark abortion-rights case Roe v. Wade. On Tuesday, January 22, Weddington was the honored guest at a fundraiser for Planned Parenthood Advocates of Oregon. We caught up with her right before her speech and had a brief conversation about the enduring controversy of abortion politics.
MERCURY: How did you wind up involved in the case?
SARAH WEDDINGTON: It was a group of people up in Austin, Texas, mostly graduate students [at University of Texas at Austin] who were writers for The Rag, an alternative 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 to 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."
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 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 have the past 40 years of abortion politics played out differently than you thought they would?
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 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 40 years, it's still a front-page issue.
Why is that? Why is abortion still so controversial for Americans?
I don't think it's "Americans." If you look at the [recent] polls, 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 US 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.