Thank You, Sarah Weddington

The woman whose legal arguments won the legal right to abortion at the Supreme Court died in December.

Thank You, Sarah Weddington
Photo:Barry Thumma/Mike Groll (AP)

Linda Coffee still has the $15 check she used to file the first lawsuit that would become Roe v. Wade at the Supreme Court. Later, she would ask another young Texas woman lawyer to join the case, Sarah Weddington. “I don’t know that I really needed one, but I knew Sarah was planning a case,” Coffee told Jezebel by phone from her home in Mineola, Texas. The University of Texas law school only had a handful of women who enrolled and graduated at the time, so she knew of Weddington’s work ethic.

Together, they won the case, but for the 49th anniversary of Roe v. Wade on Saturday, this is the first year only one of them is alive. Weddington, who was the lawyer to successfully argue before the Supreme Court, died the day after Christmas. Though it was a thrill to talk to Coffee about her old partner in law, both women are largely forgotten in modern reproductive rights history.

Maybe it’s because neither were particularly flashy: Coffee went on to practice mostly bankruptcy law, while Weddington served in the Texas legislature for a time and then taught at her alma mater. But since Saturday is probably the last active anniversary of Roe, I decided to write a remembrance to Weddington following her death at the age of 76.

I found Weddington’s memoir in a used bookstore in Washington, D.C. I was in town to report on June Medical Services v. Russo. The blurbs on the back are news icon Linda Ellerbee; Ann Richards; Bill Clinton, still only the governor of Arkansas; Molly Ivins, my alcoholic writing hero; Larry King and Rosalyn Carter. It’s decidedly from a different time, but so was Weddington.

She was born in February 1945 in Abilene, a west-central Texas town of about 30,000. Her dad was a Methodist minister and, despite being a very conventional teenager (church choir and marching band), she didn’t want any of the trappings of a “normal” life that were foisted upon women of that era. She dreamed of law school, but didn’t know ho to do it until a dean at her small Methodist liberal arts college told her it would be too hard for her, like it was too hard for his son. Weddington had already skipped two grades when she made it to Austin in January 1965 to work for the biannual legislature. She enrolled at UT law school in June where she was one of five women in her class.

Her role in the lawsuit started in a garage in Austin. A group of her friends were raising money for the abortion “referral project” operating among UT students. Weddington didn’t work there, but she started to do legal research for them. “Doctors could be prosecuted; and the volunteers at the referral project didn’t know whether they could get into legal trouble by referring women for safe abortion,” she wrote.

So Weddington joined the fight. And she knew what she defended: Weddington had an abortion in 1967 in a doctor’s office in Piedra Negras, across the border from Eagle Pass, Texas. Abortion was obviously illegal in Texas and Mexico, but Weddington suspected bribes kept the illegal operation in business in Mexico. No matter, her D&C was successful. She went back to law school at UT Austin.

The fact that a person might have to carry a pregnancy to term when they don’t want to? It is torture. It is a human rights violation. Weddington understood that in her bones. The book is dedicated “to those who willing to share the responsibility of protecting choice,” and I hope you take Weddington’s death as a call to action. There is a job for everyone interested in preserving abortion and reproductive freedom. Because of the patriarchy, these rights will not be preserved without a fight. That’s the worst part of a unenumerated right — it’s there, but only in the legal murkiness of the right to privacy.

It’s taken me this long to write a tribute to a woman who made my life possible because I can’t believe she lived long enough to see the right to abortion reach such a crisis point. Arguing Roe was her career high point (no offense to her time in the Texas legislature). She was only 26! She didn’t get her flowers nearly enough while alive. America loves to valorize the work of one person and forget about the behind the scenes, the foot soldiers. But we never really valorized her work, especially outside of Texas. Instead Weddington aged in a world where abortion was “safe, legal, and rare.” A world where politicians from her own party worked to push abortion into a back corner because they were scared to stand up for women. The only good thing about her death is that she died before her legal triumph could be undone by people like Amy Coney Barrett who think adopting is an alternative to abortion.

I wish I had gotten the opportunity to tell her how much her work meant to my life. At least I got to tell the woman who brought her on to the case.

“I was very proud of the fact that we won,” Coffee told Jezebel of their work. “It’s sad that I think Roe v. Wade could be overturned. I counted there were five members of the Supreme Court that seemed to be leaning toward changing the law. I think it’s really what it is there now is almost chaos.”

So, rest in power, Ms. Weddington. We’ll continue to fight for the right to abortion.

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