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Sarah Weddington, Roe v Wade attorney, on Trump’s threat to abortion rights

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.

Sarah
Sarah Weddington with president Jimmy Carter. She served as his assistant from 1978 to 1981. Photograph: Courtesy Sarah Weddington

What about abortion? Is it possible it could become illegal again in the US?
Trump has always said that he would try to appoint people who were strongly against abortion to the supreme court. But Neil Gorsuch [a conservative judge, and Trumps nomination to the supreme court] has never said that much about abortion. States cant make abortion illegal. But some have been passing laws that make it much less available, for instance by saying that no abortion can be done except in a facility that meets the requirements for emergency care. In other words, they make the cost of abortion much higher. A lot of women are already crossing state lines, and in that sense, a lot of what is happening is just like it was before Roe v Wade was decided. Youve got one vacancy now on the supreme court. But Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who is helping to keep abortion available, is 83, and there are a couple of older male judges too. If Gorsuchs nomination is approved, will abortion be illegal the next day? No. One new judge wont necessarily make much difference. But two or three might.

How did you feel on hearing that Norma McCorvey had died?
Well, I was sad. I appreciate that she was once concerned with overturning the law on abortion. But on the back of being Jane Roe, she ended up going on all these pro-choice tours. I learned to be very careful about believing what she said.

You worked somewhat against the odds on the case in which she became involved.
Thats right. There was a building across the street from the University of Texas and a lot of student organisations had cubby holes there, with desks rescued from the garbage. In one little nook, women and some men were trying to work on womens issues. One thing that was upsetting was that the university health centre did not give out information about, or prescriptions for, anything relating to contraception. A couple of these women had gone to New York and got a copy of Our Bodies Ourselves [a landmark book of 1971 that dealt plainly and openly with womens health and sexuality] I still have this mental image of them in a closet with a flashlight reading this book and they began to give the relevant information out to women. As they did, women would sometimes say: Im already pregnant. Where can I get an abortion? So they started going to places where abortion was available, and theyd write up that information, too. Sometimes, for instance, theyd write: This person does not seem very skilled: never send anyone here. A lot of women were going to Mexico.
Abortion was illegal there, too, but it was close to Texas, and sometimes women ended up in the wrong hands because people there wanted to make money out of the situation.

The upshot of all this was that the women students were getting worried the police might arrest them for being accomplices to abortion. We were sitting at the snack bar in the law school one day and one of them, Judy Smith, said: We need to get a lawsuit filed and try to overturn the Texas law. Would you be willing to do it? I told her she would be better off with someone with more legal experience. Id only done uncontested divorces, wills, one adoption for my uncle; I had no experience at all in federal court. How much would you charge? she asked. When I admitted I would do it for free, she said: OK, you are our lawyer.

Protest
Protest marchers form a ring of life around the Minnesota Capitol building protesting the US supreme courts Roe v. Wade decision, 22 January 1973. Photograph: AP

Were you nervous?
I was very nervous. It was like going down a street with no street lights. But there was no other way to go, and I didnt have any preconceived notions that I would not win. In 1965, there was a case,
Griswold v Connecticut, involving doctors and the supply by doctors of contraceptive devices to a married couple. [Connecticut was then one of two states where contraception was effectively illegal, even if the law was rarely enforced.] Yes, neanderthal. That case was won in the US supreme court, and in its ruling, the court had talked about the right of privacy under the constitution. It was, the court said, for the married couple to decide whether or not to use contraception. So there was a precedent. But I certainly was not confident.

You won in the federal court, but the case still went to the supreme court. Why?
In Dallas, the court ruled there was a right of privacy, that abortion should be legal. Henry Wade, the district attorney, then unwittingly helped us. At a press conference, he said: I dont care what any court says; I am going to continue to prosecute doctors who carry out abortion. There was a procedural rule that said if local elected officials continue to prosecute after a federal court had declared a law unconstitutional, there would be a right to appeal to the supreme court.

Did you have any hint at all as you addressed the supreme court that you might win?
No, it was impossible to read the justices faces. The attorney on the other side started by saying something inappropriate about arguing a case against a beautiful woman. He thought the judges would snicker. But their faces didnt change a bit.

It was a while before the verdict was released, wasnt it?
I had to argue it twice in the supreme court in 1971, and again in 1972. On 22 January 1973, I was at the Texas legislature when the phone rang. It was a reporter from the New York Times. Does Miss Weddington have a comment today about Roe v Wade? my assistant was asked. Why? she said. Should she? It was beginning to be very exciting. Then we got a telegram from the supreme court saying that I had won seven to two and that they were going to airmail a copy of the ruling. Nowadays, of course, youd just go online. I was ecstatic, and more than 44 years later were still talking about it.

When you published your book A Question of Choice in 1992, you decided to reveal that in 1967 youd had an abortion yourself, while you were still a law student. Why did you wait so long to reveal this?
Just before the anaesthesia hit, I thought: I hope no one ever knows about this. For a lot of years, that was exactly the way I felt. Now theres a major push to encourage women to tell their stories so people will realise that it is not a shameful thing. One out of every five women will have an abortion. I was lucky because the man I was planning to marry [Ron Weddington; they divorced in 1974] was with me. He drove me to Mexico. We had gotten information from a woman he knew about where to go, and luckily I was working three jobs so I had the money to pay. It was anxiety-inducing. Youre going across the border to see someone you dont know. But it turned out that my doctor was very good. I wish I had his name, so I could thank him.

Are you still able to get in touch with the young woman you once were, or does she feel very far away?
Well, my hair is white now, so in one way, I dont see myself as her at all, even if, whatever else I do in my life, the headline on my obituary is always going to be: Roe v Wade attorney dies. But in terms of my emotions, yes: I think most women of my generation can recall our feelings about the fight. Its like young love. You may not feel exactly the same, but you remember it.

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