Forty years ago, the Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade, making abortion legal in all 50 states. Sarah Weddington, an attorney from Texas, was the lawyer who argued for legalized abortion before the high court. She was 26 years old at the time.
Years later, the plaintiff, Norma McCorvey (“Roe” in Roe v. Wade), became a pro-life activist. Weddington went on to serve three terms in the Texas House of Representatives, became the first female General Counsel of U.S. Department of Agriculture, and later worked as Assistant to President Jimmy Carter. She is currently an adjunct professor at the University of Texas at Austin.
TIME interviewed Weddington ten years ago about her experience with the case, and recently caught up with her to discuss the ongoing abortion wars. Below are excerpts from the conversation and audio clips from her historic reargument on October 11, 1972.
Q: Ten years ago, we asked if you thought the Roe v Wade ruling will stand for another 30 more years. You said, “I despair when I look at who has the power today.” Do you still feel that way?
Having Obama as president means that if there are any vacancies on the Supreme Court, I think that Obama would be likely to appoint a judge who would favor Roe vs. Wade. What I worry about now and for the next ten years is, will women still have access to abortion?
State legislatures have begun to pass all kinds of restrictions that really make it harder for women to access services. If you look at who’s passing those regulations, they are not people who say, “We’re in favor of abortion being available and we just want to be sure they’re safe.” They are people who are totally opposed to abortion. What they really want is to try and do everything they can to be sure there are no abortions available.
Q: Legally, those state level laws can’t chip away at the constitutional right. But do you feel they can chip away at the national attitude?
I don’t think it’s so much the national attitude they’re chipping away at. I think the minority who want abortion to be illegal are having a disproportionate effect. That’s one of the reasons we’re trying so hard to increase the number of pro-choice people to vote. If you look at the last election, the number of women who were voting was much higher. And that was true for Latino women, black women, young women, women of all kinds. They turned out because they thought their personal interest was at stake. And I think it was one of the keys to the reason Romney did not win.
Q: You live in Texas. Just recently, Governor Rick Perry excluded Planned Parenthood from the state’s health care program for low income women. What are your thoughts on that?
For the last several years, we have had a program here in Texas that provided medical services – not abortion, but medical services – to women who were poor, younger, had various health conditions. Perry said Planned Parenthood is one of the places that provides abortion, and we don’t want any of them to get our state money. Even though it was being used for breast exams to prevent breast cancer, uterine pap smears, well woman care, well baby care, everything.
There have been several lawsuits filed. The official word is that there will be lots of clinics where you could get these services. But when you start examining the statistics they give you, they’re often wrong. So there will be a huge fight in the legislature about that.
But I think it just shows that Perry is willing to penalize women who like where they go to get their health care, who are happy with the service that’s provided – again, not abortion, that is not included – but even for their contraception, cancer related, all kinds of other things.
Q: Does any of this surprise you, having been on the front lines from the beginning?
Yes, it does. I look back in history, and there was a time when many states had laws making contraception illegal. The Supreme Court in ’65 ruled (in Griswold v. Connecticut) that there is a right of privacy and that married people have the right to use contraception. And then the Supreme Court in Baird vs. Eisenstadt (1972) said that right of privacy to decide whether you want to bear or beget a child, and therefore the right to use contraception, is [for] married and single people. So, I thought that this would be a case where Roe vs. Wade would be accepted, maybe not just right at first, but within a few years. And that we could go ahead and move on to work on other issues.
But while we were doing that, the opposition was gaining strength. And today, we see the opposition being strong, very strong, and we see a lot of people who have forgotten what it was like when abortion was illegal. And you can’t blame ‘em. They’re too young to remember!
What we know from the past is that if abortion is illegal, there will be illegal abortion. And if we come to a period that abortion is theoretically legal, but the laws in various states make it almost impossible for women who are younger or poorer to have access, you’re going to have more illegal or self-abortion.
So, I still worry. I’m not as frantic now as I was then, because I think, looking at the Supreme Court, we have a better chance of good decisions right now.
Q: Do you feel that the terms pro-choice and pro-life are so oversimplified that some people don’t actually know which one they identify with?
I disagreed with the cover story of TIME (January 14, 2013) saying the people who believe abortion should be available, safe and legal, won on January 22, 1973, but they’ve been losing ever since. I do agree that the opposition has been more successful in organizing and in putting on political pressure. But I think we have managed to survive a lot of attacks. And actually, I think Planned Parenthood is getting a lot stronger.
We’re also trying to focus the attention again on the fact that many of the people who helped us back in the ‘60s and the ‘50s were Republican. Barry Goldwater, who was the Republican candidate for president at one point, was very pro-choice. Or you look at the Fords. They were very pro-choice. The Republican party now is certainly not our friend, but I think the Republicans who are pro-choice are beginning to talk about, “What do we do to take our own party back?” Because they don’t recognize it. This isn’t the party they helped to create and nourish and keep going, and I think they’re worried that it’s going to keep them from winning in the future.
Q: Abortion is a very emotional issue and a religious issue for a lot of people. As an attorney, you had to argue using very specific language about constitutional rights. Do you think that’s hard for people to understand?
Sometimes I think it is, because some people just say, “My faith is opposed to abortion.” But we live in a country where we can have many faiths, and we don’t impose the law of one faith on everybody. And so we go back to the constitution. What was the view of our founders? And it was that there are many parts of life which are so personal – the word privacy is not in the constitution but certainly the concept is – and so the founders basically were saying, “We really believe that the government should not make our most important decisions.”
When I was arguing Roe vs. Wade, there were a lot of religious groups that were saying, what the anti-abortion laws do to women in terms of their health, physical and psychological, isn’t right. We’ve got to change it. So the United Methodist Church, Unitarian Universalist Alliance, and the Jewish groups, a whole variety of religious groups filed in our favor.
Audio of Justice Harry Blackmun, Sarah Weddington and Justice Potter Stewart on October 11, 1972
Q: You have said that the ‘70s were a really great time for activist women. Do you think now is a good time, too?
The problem I see for younger activists is that today it’s harder to get a good job. It’s harder to make the money you need. I mean, we lived so simply. I watch my students and the tuition is so much higher and they’re working two or three jobs trying to support themselves. I think it is harder for people to have the time to be able to do the kinds of work we did, just because we didn’t have as many other demands on us as people who are of college age and a little bit older do.
Q: Are there any recent strides in the women’s movement that you have enjoyed being part of or witnessing?
Oh, yeah. There are various things. Some of the reaction in India to the rape of the young woman a month ago. I’m gratified by the reaction of people saying, “This is horrible! We’re going to do something about it!” And I think they will. I think there will be people all over the world who will be active in trying to help.
If you look at the number of women now in the U.S. Senate. The increased number of women in the U.S. House. There are lots of political reasons to be encouraged.
Q: The audio from your arguments before the Supreme Court is widely available online. Do you ever go back and listen to it?
Yes, I do. It’s the argument where 40 years ago, I was saying, “We are not asking this court to decide that abortion is good, or that everyone should have one. We are asking this court to decide that that issue is one for the individual to decide, not the government.” And it’s the same thing that I would say today.
Audio from Sarah Weddington’s reargument for Roe v. Wade on October 11, 1972
Audio from the oral reargument of Roe v. Wade on October 11, 1972 is from the Oyez Project at Chicago-Kent.