From the Archives: 1989: Schlafly Clashes With Roe Lawyer in Debate at UCI

Phyllis Schlafly in 1989
Original published caption, Oct. 13, 1989: On abortion, Schlafly, above: “Are we really going to let mothers kill babies for any reason they want?”
(Christine Cotter / Los Angeles Times)

Editor’s note: This article was published in the Los Angeles Times on Oct. 13, 1989. Phyllis Schlafly died Sept. 5, 2016.

In the world of archconservative Phyllis Schlafly, men are men and women are housewives — even if they work. In Sarah Weddington’s world, men are men and women are whatever they want to be.

Thursday night, Schlafly, 65, the matron saint of family-centered womanhood, and Weddington, 44, a Texas lawyer who won the landmark Roe vs. Wade case in 1973 that legalized abortion, debated inside the Bren Events Center at UC Irvine before an audience of about 800.

For more than two hours, they addressed a number of contemporary issues: the role of women, comparable worth in women’s wage scales, and abortion, including the recent Webster vs. Reproductive Health Services, in which the Supreme Court opened the door for further state restrictions on abortion.


While Weddington supported a woman’s right to choose whether to have children, Schlafly said it was the government’s duty to protect the rights of the unborn by outlawing abortion.

“Who’s going to make the decision to have children?” Weddington asked. “Can they force it on you and make you carry a pregnancy to term, and then turn around and tell you it’s all your responsibility? . . .

“Every child should be a wanted child, every mother a willing mother,” she argued.

Schlafly retorted, amid occasional heckling from members of the crowd: “Are we really going to let mothers kill babies for any reason they want? No one says they’re going to have a fetus. They say they’re going to have a baby. . . .


“When it comes to cutting out a baby," Schlafly said, “it is a hard decision. That is because it is a human life. We now know, with the advance in fetology, that it is a baby, and it is the purpose of government to protect that right to life.”

Weddington countered that the concept of right to life “should mean that everyone should get medical care. But 37 million Americans don’t have it.”

Schlafly and Weddington have been facing off on the debate circuit for several years. The UCI debate was one of about eight engagements the two have planned this year for the nation’s colleges and universities.

“It serves to motivate college campuses and make students take a stand on some of today’s most controversial issues,” said Jay Callahan, the agent for both women. “Not much gets resolved necessarily, but it forces them to think.”

UCI paid Weddington $2,500, and Schlafly, $3,500, in addition to travel expenses for Thursday’s event.

Before the pair set foot on campus, students circulated anti-Schlafly flyers that scoffed at her stands against equal pay for women and the Equal Rights Amendment. At 4:30 p.m., members of the Rainbow Coalition, a group of 10 to 15 students, met in front of the main campus library to plan a protest.

A handful of the students later showed up at the debate.

“The debate presents a narrow picture,” said Catherine Carlassare, a student and member of the organization. “If we fight together to improve health care, we won’t have to decide between babies and women.”


Inside the Bren Events Center, pro-choice and anti-abortion groups set up tables to distribute literature. More than 100 people, mostly women, milled around in the lobby perusing their pamphlets.

Although security was heavy, several advertised protests failed to materialize.

Weddington graduated from the University of Texas Law School at age 21. She successfully represented Norma Nelson McCorvey, then known as “Jane Roe,” in the landmark 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion on demand.

The decision wiped out 100 years of abortion laws, led to more than 24 million abortions and helped put Weddington in the Carter White House as an adviser for women’s issues.

Weddington, 44, now practices law in Austin, Tex., and lectures on history and government at the University of Texas and Texas Women’s University.

Schlafly, a defender of traditional homemaking and family-centered womanhood, is widely known for her conservative views on abortion and the role of women in American society. She is president and founder of Eagle Forum, a pro-family organization active in politics.

Schlafly, the mother of six, is credited with masterminding the defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment, which she said would have created a “gender-free” society and forced more women to work.

For nine consecutive years, Good Housekeeping magazine has named her one of the 10 most admired women in the world. From her Alton, Ill., home, she is now championing the rights of children and contends day care can harm youngsters.



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