The US lawyer in the landmark 1973 case, which effectively legalised abortion, talks about the fight to protect Planned Parenthood
Sarah Weddington is the lawyer who, aged just 26, represented Jane Roe in the landmark case Roe v Wade, which in 1973 effectively legalised abortion in the US. The daughter of a Methodist minister, she was born in 1945 in Abilene, Texas. Having graduated with a degree in English from McMurry University, she enrolled at the University of Texas Law School in 1964, one of 40 women among a student body of 1,600. I thought I would be teaching eighth graders to love Beowulf, she recalls. But that wasnt working out so well, so I decided to go to law school instead. In this, I was encouraged by the dean of my college, who told me that it would be far too tough for a woman. As sure as dammit I am going, I thought.
After graduating, she joined a group of students who were seeking to challenge anti-abortion laws, agreeing to file a suit against the state of Texas on their behalf. Soon after, 21-year-old Norma McCorvey was referred to Weddington and her colleague Linda Coffee, now actively looking for pregnant women who were seeking abortions. McCorvey became the plaintiff Jane Roe, though by the time the supreme court issued its ruling, her baby had long since been born and given up for adoption. McCorvey later became an evangelical Christian and vocal anti-abortion campaigner, and claimed to have been the victim of the Roe v Wade lawyers. She died last month aged 69.
Weddington remains the youngest person ever to have argued a successful case at the supreme court. In 1973, she was elected to the Texas House of Representatives, where she served for three terms. In 1973, she became the first female General Counsel at the US Department of Agriculture. From 1978 until 1981, she served as assistant to President Carter, directing his administrations work on womens issues. She now runs the Weddington Center, Austin, whose work focuses on women and leadership. She recently told NBC news that the election of Donald Trump may pose the biggest threat yet to abortion rights in the US.
Where were you on election night? Did you sense that Trump was going to win?
Austin is one of the more liberal towns in Texas, though the state itself is barely liberal. Most people I know strongly expected Hillary to win. But Id been on a panel a few weeks before where a man had said: You liberals think Hillary is going to win. Well, let me tell you, there are a lot of people out here who are voting with our finger the middle finger. So I knew there was resistance. There were a lot of parties on the night, but I had enough concerns to be afraid that going to one might turn out to be too depressing. So I came here to my office, and watched it on the New York Times website.
Whats your impression of the president so far?
I thought he would be terrible, and he has proven me correct. In Texas, we have a lot of people from Mexico and El Salvador, and a lot of them are worried family members will be deported.
What do you make of the growing fear that under this administration Planned Parenthood [a 100-year-old nonprofit organisation that is the largest single provider of reproductive health services, including abortion, in the US] will lose its federal funding?
The federal government has never given money to Planned Parenthood for abortion. It gives money to it for the provision of contraception and well woman care: for the treatment of venereal disease, mammograms, and so on. The anti-abortionists recognise that the money is not used for abortion, but they want it cut off anyway. It is a real threat. But Planned Parenthood may ultimately benefit from what Trump is doing and saying. Last week, I was in Houston for a Planned Parenthood event. Usually, there would be about 1,000 people in the audience. This time, we had 2,500. People are very worried, and they are giving more generously.