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Feminists and activists had been sounding the alarm on abortion rights long before the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade on June 24. For Sarah Weddington, the Texas attorney who argued and won Roe v. Wade when she was 26 years old, the 5-4 SCOTUS vote ending the constitutionally protected right to abortion after nearly 50 years was the culmination of a years-old fear that her work for women’s right to choose would be undone.
Weddington, who died at her home in Austin, Texas, on Dec. 26, 2021, spoke with MAKERS in 2011. Even then, 11 years before Roe v. Wade would ultimately be overturned, she said she worried about the fate of that landmark legislation.
"There are two primary concerns about Roe v. Wade moving forward," Weddington told MAKERS.
One concern was that states would continue to pass increasingly restrictive laws against abortion — which was already the case in Weddington’s home state of Texas. She lamented a law that went into effect in 2012 requiring women to see sonogram images and hear the fetal heartbeat at least 24 hours before an abortion procedure.
"It was passed by people who are not worried about her medical situation or physiological situation," Weddington told MAKERS of that Texas law. "They're trying to make her decide not to go forward with an abortion."
The other danger to Roe v. Wade that Weddington said she would "worry most about" was that the makeup of the Supreme Court could change.
"If you had a president who was opposed to Roe v. Wade, as President Bush was, he or she could appoint people opposed to Roe v. Wade to be on the U.S. Supreme Court, and you could end up with a majority of the court being against Roe and overturning Roe at a future time," Weddington said.
Weddington’s fears did indeed come to pass. In 2016, the Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump promised to appoint Supreme Court justices who would vote in favor of overturning Roe v. Wade; and he made good on that promise when, as president, Trump nominated three of the five conservative justices — Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett — who ended up voting to overturn the abortion rights ruling. Trump took credit for the Roe v. Wade reversal, saying it and "other decisions that have been announced recently were only made possible because I delivered everything as promised."
Weddington was born Abilene, Texas, in 1945 and attended McMurry University before graduating from the University of Texas School of Law in 1967. After law school, she was approached by a women’s group working to legalize abortion, and she began to build a case that challenged Texas’s anti-abortion law. In 1971, her case Roe v. Wade was selected to be heard before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Speaking with MAKERS, Weddington recalled the celebrations around the U.S. Capitol and her office on Jan. 22, 1973, when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of abortion rights in a 7-2 vote and rendered anti-abortion laws in 46 states unconstitutional.
"The phones were going crazy … I mean it was pandemonium all day, and then that night there was finally a time to just sit and think about it," Weddington said.
"If anybody had said then, 'You will still be talking about this in 38 and a half years,' [I] never would have believed that," she added. "It never occurred to me that it would be the major issue that it is today with almost every state legislature; it would be a major issue in the Congress; it would be a major issue in political races. Here we are 38 and a half years later, and it is one of the most important and most crucial issues in American life."
Weddington explained that a driving force behind her fight for abortion rights was making the procedure safe for women.
"It did not mean because abortion was illegal in Texas that there were no abortions; it just meant that [because] abortion was not legal, it was not safe. And often it was very dangerous and done under terrible circumstances," Weddington told MAKERS. "We were trying hard to give women the choice, and also to be sure that whatever choice they made would be one that wouldn’t deprive them of their life or their fertility or their health."
Today, concerns about the dangers of illegal abortions are resurfacing in the wake of the Roe v. Wade reversal. The dire health consequences for women who resort to unsafe abortion — which is defined as "a procedure for terminating an unintended pregnancy carried out either by persons lacking the necessary skills or in an environment that does not conform to minimal medical standards, or both" — are well documented, and can include internal organ damage, infertility and maternal death. The World Health Organization attributes up to 13.2% of maternal deaths each year to unsafe abortions.
Weddington was ever-conscious of the grim realities that many desperate women faced, in part thanks to her own "medically safe" experience with abortion. In a 2003 interview with Texas Monthly, Weddington described having an abortion during her last year of law school. Abortion wasn't legal in Texas at the time, so Weddington and her boyfriend Ron Weddington, whom she would marry in 1968, made an appointment in Mexico.
"I didn’t have any complications," she told Texas Monthly. "But it made me appreciate what other women went through, who did not have someone to go with them or did not have the money to pay for a medically safe abortion, as I did."
In the years after the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, Weddington served as a White House assistant to President Jimmy Carter. She taught at the University of Texas at Austin and started the Weddington Center, where she promoted public and civic leadership.
"I believe that leadership is the willingness and the ability to leave your thumbprint. And that's really what my life has been about: leaving my thumbprint in the sense of making a wider world for women to live in," Weddington told MAKERS.
"There's a great quote one of my students used in a speech in my class that said, 'The only things that last forever are words.' And I think, as the words of this program are available for people, they will last forever. … And so I’m very grateful to be part of sending words out to others that I hope will find them useful and meaningful."