January 22 marks the 39th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion in the United States. That ruling has been called the most significant of the 20th century. Certainly it was the most significant for women.
The case was argued by a 27-year old female lawyer from Texas — Sarah Weddington, in her first appearance before the Court. Female lawyers were so rare in those days that the Supreme Court lawyers lounge didn’t even have a ladies room. There were no female Supreme Court justices. Weddington faced a wall of older white men.
Almost 40 years later, Sarah Weddington is still a tireless advocate for women. She now teaches leadership at the University of Texas at Austin, writes and speaks nationwide, and continues to educate young women and men on rights and responsibilities, and the fragile nature of progress without vigilance. I took a look back (and a look forward) with her last week on my radio show, Equal Time with Martha Burk. Here are some highlights:
MB: When you argued the case, you were a young inexperienced lawyer. Were you scared?
SW: Well, yes. 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.
MB: You won the case 7-2. It seems like every decision that comes out of the Court now is 5-4. Is the Court more politicized now than it was then?
SW: I think it definitely is, particularly on the issue of abortion. Now you have several judges who are very strongly in favor of Roe v. Wade, but you also have several who are strongly against. We have two women judges that we’re not absolutely sure what their position is going to be. They didn’t really talk about it in their confirmation hearings, and the Court hasn’t had a case [on Roe] since they’ve been on it.
MB: You did something very unusual when you testified against Clarence Thomas. You brought a picture of a pregnant Thomas to the confirmation hearing.
SW: Yes. He had made some comments that were so outrageous and controversial, and I was trying to say that if he had ever been in the position to be pregnant, he would have much more sympathy and understanding of the way women feel when they’re pregnant and don’t want to be. There are so many in such dire economic straits — many couples who both have to work to take care of their families, and there is no day care. If Thomas could appreciate the position so many are in, he would understand why it should not be his decision, it should not be the government’s decision. They should have a right of privacy on when to continue and when to terminate a pregnancy.
MB: Did the case hang primarily on the right to privacy?
SW: Yes. We had in our Supreme Count packets these documents from previous cases where the Supreme Court had said there is a right to privacy in the use of contraception. We were trying to get them to pull that rubber band a little wider, and say it also covers the decision of whether to continue or terminate a pregnancy. But when you argue a case before the Supreme Court you will argue anything that you think might be possible, so we had many [other possible arguments], in other words several parts of the constitution that might apply.
MB: It seems the opposition is no longer attacking the right to abortion head on — they’re concentrating more on onerous restrictions — waiting periods, mandatory sonograms, clinic size requirements and the like.
SW: There is a real split in the opposition. Most of the opposition in recent years has not concentrated on making abortion illegal. They’re waiting for the Supreme Court to change so they can win. [In the meantime], they want to make it unavailable. [These restrictions] belittle women and their families who try to make the best decision for their own situations.
MB: Given the Roberts court, do you believe a successful challenge will be argued on the privacy issue or will it be “fetal rights” or even “fertilized egg bills” trying to declare that eggs have the same rights as everyone else?
SW: Even that would probably have several [affirmative] votes on the Court. But the voters have turned down similar laws, most recently in Mississippi. So the voters have said there are some things you should not have the government deciding. I trust the voters on those cases more than I do the U.S. Supreme Court.
MB: Do you see the fervor in young people today? Or do they think we’ve got their rights won?
SW: I do see young people trying to help, supporting Planned Parenthood. But I’d say far greater numbers are having such a hard time just going to work, getting money for school and the like. So it’s harder for them, but I wish somehow we could get their attention. Part of it is for young people to know what they have now that women didn’t have before. We never want to go back to the way it was. And we really need the help of voters and of younger people to save their ability to make their own choices.
MB: You teach leadership at the University of Texas. If you could give only one piece of advice to young people today, what would it be?
SW: Leadership is about leaving your thumb print — a concept of trying to leave the world a better place for others. So I would say to young people, ask yourself, what can I do and how can I leave the world a better place than I found it.
Listen to Weddington’s full interview here:
OtherWords contributor Martha Burk is a political psychologist, women’s issues expert, and director of the Corporate Accountability Project for the National Council of Women’s Organizations (NCWO). Follow her on twitter at @MarthaBurk.