Still arguing for Roe vs. Wade Twenty-five years later, Sarah Weddington continues to find herself defined by the landmark case she won - and she's still defending the decision.


June 07, 1998|By Sarah Pekkanen | Sarah Pekkanen,SUN STAFF

There is an important folder Sarah Weddington keeps tucked away in her Austin, Texas, home, one she updates every time a newspaper story or passing conversation or television snippet reveals a tiny clue about the personal lives of the nine U.S. Supreme Court justices.

Inside her bulging folder is a recent article that mentions Justice John Paul Stevens has been spending time in Florida lately. Weddington knows he has a condominium there. Could he be planning to retire? Might he leave a vacancy on the bench?

And, most critically, would the person who replaced him support Roe vs. Wade?

More than two decades after she stepped in front of the Supreme Court at the tender age of 26 and successfully argued the landmark abortion case, Weddington is still assessing the odds of its survival with the calculating eye of a race-track bookie.

"If [George] Bush was re-elected, we would have lost Roe vs. Wade in the Supreme Court," Weddington says in the drawl that exposes her Texas roots. "When Clinton and Bush were running against each other, the court was 5-4. Four wanted to get rid of it.

"Now, it's 3-3-3. Three want to get rid of it, three want to leave it alone, and three say don't get rid of it, but make it weaker."

Much has happened to Weddington since that January morning in 1971 when, attacked by a case of nerves just as she was to argue before the nation's highest court, she searched the lawyer's lounge for a women's bathroom and discovered there was none.

She has won election to the Texas legislature, been divorced, worked under President Jimmy Carter in the White House, taught at the University of Texas at Austin, and written a book. She has even returned to the Supreme Court lawyer's lounge and discovered that there is now a women's restroom next to the one for men.

Despite the accomplishments and sorrows of the intervening years, however, Weddington is still largely defined today by the legal victory she helped secure almost before the ink was dry on her law school diploma.

It's something she has struggled to come to terms with, this feeling that she peaked in her 20s and that every subsequent achievement is somehow anti-climactic. It was a feeling so intense at one point that she plunged into books about professional athletes, trying to learn how they made the transition to less splashy lives once their glory days had ended.

"Everyone expects for the accomplishments of their lives to be a progression," she says. "Having done a winning Supreme Court case in my 20s ... how do you top that? I've finally made peace with the fact that you can't."

But Weddington certainly doesn't want to put the case behind her. That much is revealed by a glimpse into her home. Reminders of Roe vs. Wade are found in the framed photograph in her hallway of the justices who ruled in her favor in 1973, and in the pile of hate mail she saves in a desk drawer in case something happens to her.

There is another reason why Weddington has stayed relentlessly focused on the case. It's why she testified against Clarence Thomas' Supreme Court nomination, and why she clips newspaper stories about Justice Stevens' vacation habits.

It's also why she is taking this semester off from teaching pre-law courses and traveling across the country to raise money for groups like Planned Parenthood and lawmakers who favor abortion rights. Tuesday in Baltimore, she speaks at a Planned Parenthood breakfast fund-raiser at the Hyatt Regency Inner Harbor.

She is doing these things, she says, because she fears that politicians and anti-abortion groups are slowly chipping away at the decision.

"It has been pointed out that more than half of all doctors who do abortions today were providing the medical services before Roe vs. Wade," she says. "They remember the horror stories of women whose lives were in the balance in emergency rooms, whose fertility they were trying to save. ... The question is, will there be other doctors when they retire?"

The bombings of clinics and shootings of doctors have made a chilling impression on the new generation of doctors, who lack vivid memories of botched back-room abortions, she says. They don't have the incentive to literally put their lives on the line to provide abortions, she feels.

Weddington also views with apprehension the new, more conservative breed of politicians entering Congress. She notes that they are coming up with creative ways to restrict abortions, such as attaching restrictions to military spending bills that prohibit abortions in overseas military hospitals.

"The total impact is worrisome to me," she says.

So since December, Weddington has criss-crossed the country, making speeches on behalf of candidates and groups from Colorado to Vermont to Hawaii. It's a backbreaking schedule that leaves time for little else. Weddington has even given up flying, one of her few hobbies, because she can't get the air time required to maintain her pilot's license.

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