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The Lawyer and the Landmark : 20 Years After Winning Roe vs. Wade, Sarah Weddington Still Is Arguing Over Abortion

Times Staff Writer

Sarah Weddington, off on yet another speaking engagement, was being whisked along a New York highway by a hired driver when she paused to observe that, “Essentially, no one who’s under 34 remembers Roe vs. Wade.”

But Weddington, 44, remembers the case with that special clarity reserved for the milestones of a lifetime.

She then was a 27-year-old lawyer in Dallas, Tex., where, by and large, men were men and women were housewives.

Exhibiting remarkable poise and a sweet Texas drawl, Weddington, a minister’s daughter, argued on behalf of a pregnant transient dubbed “Jane Roe” that women had the right to control their bodies. She took the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, resulting in the landmark 1973 decision that legalized abortion on demand.

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Now, however, that decision, many say, may be overturned in a Missouri case soon to be heard by the Supreme Court.

And Weddington finds herself talking about Roe again, but not, she insists, wishing she were going to be in the courtroom defending the decision herself.

A Heady Time

“I think for everyone there is a moment,” she said. “And just because you were the champion at one time and you won, that doesn’t mean you’re better than anybody else. It means that for the moment you were the right person. And I was.”

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The 1970s were heady days for feminists, civil rights activists and the young lawyers among them who routinely plotted to overturn laws they felt were unfair.

But few enjoyed the lofty success of Weddington. The Roe vs. Wade decision, wiping out 100 years of abortion law, led to 24 million legal abortions and helped Weddington on the road to the Carter White House.

Then the mood of the country changed abruptly.

Enter Ronald Reagan and the Age of Conservatism.

Young lawyers, instead of looking to reform the legal system, now flock to the establishment, jockeying for slots with the right law firms and big money. Young women lawyers, now more plentiful but with no memory of the days when abortion was illegal, are struggling with “The Mommy Track.”

And a wave of anti-abortion sentiment has washed over the land. Perhaps as early as next month the Supreme Court will consider Webster vs. Reproductive Health Services, a case in which the justices could modify or even overturn Roe, which was decided on the basis of a citizen’s right to privacy.

For Weddington, mere discussion of the topic of abortion is problematic.

“If somebody had said to me in 1969 that in 20 years you’ll still be talking about abortion, I would never have believed that,” said Weddington, who now divides her time between speaking engagements, teaching college classes and her own “very small” law practice in Austin, working on wills and probate.

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She has just hired a New York agent in hopes of writing a book about her experience with the Roe case and another about women and leadership.

She also has been criss-crossing the country talking to college students at $2,000 to $3,500 per speech about those topics, which often seems to strike the young people as being from outer space.

Out on the road with the college kids, Weddington can hardly believe how the mood of the country has changed. She seems like a relic of another era, still wearing her hair in the swept-back bun she sported at the Supreme Court, and still talking about abortion.

At the State University of New York at Farmingdale, about 75 students were scattered in a cavernous auditorium to hear her speak. Some of the students attended only because their professors required it. They listened quietly, asked few questions and left.

“It’s sad to see the turnout,” said Allison Ford, a student activities director. A recent speech by a “rock ‘n’ roll historian” drew a similar, lukewarm response, she said, noting that the SUNY students had packed the place to hear Wade Davis, author of “The Serpent and the Rainbow: A Harvard Scientist Uncovers the Startling Truth about the Secret World of Haitian Voodoo and Zombies.”

Since Roe, there have been ups and downs in Weddington’s life. She served in the Texas Legislature from 1973 until she resigned in 1977 to serve in Washington for President Carter, first as counsel to the Department of Agriculture, then as his adviser on women’s issues.

On the down side, her marriage failed and her younger sister, Sue Ragle, died of breast cancer. In 1985, Weddington resigned a job as Texas’ Washington lobbyist amid charges that she had overcharged the state for compensatory time while earning hefty speaking fees. Her hopes to run again for office failed to reach fruition.

Still, she declares herself to be “just perfectly happy.”

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After all, she tells her audiences, she feels she has come a long way.

As Weddington had done at the University of North Dakota at Grand Fork and a dozen other small schools in the last several weeks, she told the students at SUNY Farmingdale the story of Roe and her part in it; how she had been raised in a traditional home by a minister father in small Texas towns; how she was head of the junior high school band and president of her high school’s Future Homemakers of America club; how she played basketball when girls were allowed to run only half the length of the court.

Ignored College Counselor

Her trademark strawberry blonde hair now well-flecked with gray, Weddington told the students how a college counselor had advised her, “No woman from this college has ever gone to law school.”

But she went anyway. And then she could not get a job with a big firm because, among other things she was told, the lawyers’ wives would object.

She talked about how she was the first woman elected to the Texas Legislature from her district, and how as a lawmaker she had received an invitation reading, “You and your wife are invited. . . .”

Weddington told them about regulations that prohibited women from establishing their own credit, laws that forbid the use of birth control.

This ancient history did not seem to interest the students as much as voodoo and zombies, but perhaps this was reflective of a seeming national trend to take for granted watershed changes in American society--for example, the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War protests that helped to create a volunteer military.

Students and Status Quo

Against this background, Weddington can see why there seems to be so little concern by students and others over the prospect that the Roe precedent will be overturned.

“It’s really hard to get people excited about the status quo,” she said. “It’s always easier to get people excited about changing things. The opposition has, to their advantage, the position of trying to change things.”

But she asks how many of the anti-abortion activists are motivated by the belief that the procedure is tantamount to murder? Or are they really, largely, a group of people who like to see men reasserting power over women?

“I do think there are a whole lot of people who don’t like to see the way the world is changing and who are motivated in part by wanting to go back to a time when women stayed at home, they were wives and mothers,” she said. “I do think there is an element of the power issue. And I think it’s ironic that if you look at ‘Operation Rescue,’ the leaders are all men . . . pastors of very fundamental Christian churches or someone who’s holding his Bible in one hand and berating women in the other. . . .

“Part of it is these people wanting to say, ‘I’m morally superior to the rest of the world.’ ”

Guessing what the Supreme Court will do in the Webster case, Weddington speculated that the justices will allow states to place more restrictions on abortion. “And the impact of that decision would really go to exactly what they say, whether they really sort of open the floodgates for states to regulate or whether it’s very narrow.

“I wish it weren’t happening . . . I wish there were nine members of the court who were saying to the states, ‘Now, y’all quit this!’ ” she said. “But that’s not what’s happening right now.”

Such an Optimist

Weddington said she believes that the justices do not necessarily bow to public opinion but do take into account the impact of their decisions.

“I’m such an optimist, I just cannot believe a majority of the United States Supreme Court would say there is no right to privacy,” Weddington said in her speech. “I do worry, though, and it’s the first time I have really been worried since Roe vs. Wade.

“But I’m an optimist,” she said. “It’s the only way I can keep going, to believe that good things are possible. I don’t think you can necessarily, even if you want to, appoint someone who will decide a certain way on a certain case.”

If Weddington has special personal feelings about Roe being overturned, she won’t admit to them.

“Yes, I was the one who argued it, but it was ‘our’ case,” she said. “There were many people who helped on it. The real impact of it, of course, is on millions of women.”

The Mommy Question

She and her husband, Ron Weddington, with whom she shared a law practice, divorced in 1974. She never remarried or had children. “I have enough trouble keeping my plants going,” she quipped.

She declined to discuss whether abortion has ever touched her life in a personal way. “That’s just not something I’m going to talk about,” she said.

But she has no regrets about forgoing a family, “and I think part of it is that I have found the professional things I’ve done so rewarding.

“Basically,” she said, “I think everybody needs some people who say, ‘Gosh, we really appreciate what you’ve done.’ And I’ve had lots of people say that to me. And so I just never did go through that phase that I thought I really wanted children. I’ve never sort of sat around and wondered why I didn’t. I’m so busy I just don’t think for me, that would have worked.”

The sense that she has accomplished something is central to her peace of mind. She said a man with her credentials would have seen greater financial success.

“I may resent that for other women, but not for myself,” she said, adding, “At the end of the Carter Administration, most of the men went back to where they came from--the corporations, the law firms, the think tanks. But most of the women who had come to the Administration had taken a quantum leap from where they had been, and they couldn’t go back.”

In her speeches and classes, she tries to explain to today’s generation the difference between making a living (“paying the bills”) and making a life (“making a contribution.”)

“They’ve heard so much about business leadership, about how to make money, about how to live in a fine house and drive a big car, and that’s kind of their focus,” she said. “And I’m trying to say I don’t think that’s the whole answer to life.”

Criticized for Trips

Few students who hear her talk about ethics probably are aware that when she resigned her job as Texas’ state lobbyist, some Republican legislators accused her of “arrogant abuse” of her official duties by being away from her Washington office 183 days and collecting 134 days of comp time during her first two years on the job.

She also was criticized for taking “unwarranted” state-paid trips to Maine, Bermuda and California. Bill Ceverha, a GOP state representative, claimed she had collected more than $45,000 in questionable state expenses.

Weddington said the charges were untrue, that she can document the time she spent on the job and that she was a target of anti-abortion Republicans.

“We went through with the auditors and we documented (the accounts,)” she said.

“There was no question I had spent the time working,” Weddington said, bristling at the question. “It’s true that I had spent most of my free time not gardening, not going to a show, not doing a lot of other things that a lot of people do. I tend to use it doing speeches.”

Her $2,000 to $3,500 fee is “not anything like Nancy Reagan’s $30,000 or Ronald Reagan’s $50,000 or G. Gordon Liddy’s $5,000,” she said.

When she left the White House, she was told by an aide there that she would never make much money speaking because “you’re not an indicted co-conspirator, you haven’t been involved in a scandal and you haven’t had sex on the steps of the Capitol.”

As proud as she is of the abortion ruling, it has not always been Weddington’s name tag. She also worked to change laws on child custody and a range of women’s issues. When she worked for the Carter Administration, she spoke to groups like the Junior League, with only a vague reference to her “successfully arguing a case before the Supreme Court.”

Even now, when she has resurrected activity surrounding the case, it is with a certain reluctance that she allows herself to be identified as simply the “Roe vs. Wade lawyer.”

“The abortion issue is something I care a great deal about,” she said. “But I sometimes wish that it were not, in that if I do a speech captioned “Leadership,” that is what I’d like to talk about. To me, abortion was just one aspect of this total view of how society treated women.”

A Real Passion

The downfall of Carter and the Democratic Party deterred her from running for office again, and now she says she doesn’t have the proper base to raise money to do so. Besides, this is not the 1970s any more.

“When I ran the first time, I ran because I had a real passion about some things and I thought I could change them,” Weddington said. “I saw the credit laws should be changed; we changed them. I saw the (child) custody laws should be changed and we changed them. I saw that the abortion laws should be changed and we changed them.

“Right now, it’s harder for me to see how being in elected office would really accomplish things, or to feel that I have the answers right now in the same way I felt the answers in the early ‘70s. I don’t feel quite the same that, if I get elected I can make a major difference, the way I did in the early ‘70s. And maybe will again.”


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