By BeLynn Hollers and John Gravois
Sarah Weddington, a trailblazer for women’s rights known for her role arguing the landmark Roe vs. Wade case before the U.S. Supreme Court, died in her sleep Sunday morning. She was 76.
Weddington is best known as the youngest person to argue before the high court, doing so at age 26 in 1971 — in one of the most controversial cases in the court’s history, Roe vs. Wade. The milestone ruling in the case that legalized abortion came in 1973.
Attorney Susan Hays, Weddington’s former student whom she mentored, confirmed the death on Twitter as she credited her for the inspiration to be a lawyer. Hays later providedThe Texas Tribune with a statement from Weddington’s family, and said she had been found unresponsive at home by her assistant.
Hays told The Associated Press that Weddington had been in poor health for some time and it was not immediately clear what caused her death.
Weddington was a motivation for women in the 1970s in Texas and beyond, Hays said. It was a time when “the world was changing for women,” she said.
“Sarah Weddington was a great Texan who changed the course of our nation’s history,” Rep. Colin Allred, D-Dallas, said in a prepared statement.
Sarah Ragle was born in Abilene on Feb. 5, 1945. Her father was a Methodist minister and her mother a teacher.
She earned a Bachelor of Arts in English at McMurry University in Abilene. She earned her law degree at the University of Texas School of Law at a time when there were few women attending law school. She was among 40 women in a class of 1,600 students.
McMurry University, Hamilton College, Austin College, Southwestern University and Nova Southeastern University awarded her honorary doctorates.
She married Ron Weddington in 1968 while she was attending school in Austin.
Her decision to terminate a pregnancy during her third year of law school played a significant role in her involvement in abortion rights, according to a 2013 profile in The Dallas Morning News.
Weddington and her husband divorced later in life; she did not remarry or have children and lived alone in her Austin home.
“She was definitely a pioneer,” Linda Coffee, her co-counsel in Roe vs. Wade, told The News upon hearing the news of her death. “She was a strong leader.”
Roe vs. Wade
Coffee said that she was not close friends with Weddington in law school, but they knew each other. It wasn’t until after Weddington and Coffee were out of college that they joined up to represent Norma McCorvey, a pregnant woman living in Dallas and seeking an abortion, who was known by her pseudonym “Jane Roe.”
Weddington was working on abortion rights when she met Coffee, who invited her to be on the case.
“Would you consider being co-counsel in the event that a suit is actually filed. I have always found that it is a great deal more fun to work with someone on a lawsuit of this nature,” Coffee wrote to Weddington in a letter dated Dec. 4, 1969.
Weddington agreed, and the pair met with McCorvey in a restaurant in Dallas. Though they couldn’t help her obtain an abortion, they convinced her to start a case against Dallas County District Attorney Henry Wade. Both Weddington and Coffee argued the case at the district court.
In her years in Dallas, McCorvey ended up on both sides of the abortion debate. In the wake of her initial work with abortion rights groups and her high-profile role at the center of the Supreme Court case, she later became a critic of abortion rights, was baptized and publicly declared herself to be “pro-life.”
But not long before her death in 2017, McCorvey told a documentary filmmaker that her sudden opposition to abortion rights had been an act and that groups including Operation Rescue had paid her to espouse their views.
On Dec. 13, 1971, Weddington argued the case before the all-male Supreme Court at the age of 26, making her the youngest lawyer to argue before the high court.
“The Texas law in question permits abortions to be performed only in instances where it is for the purpose of saving the life of the woman,” Weddington said to the court.
At the time Texas law only permitted abortions in the event that the pregnancy would cause life-threatening issues for the woman carrying the child.
When Weddington and Coffee entered the courtroom on Dec. 13, someone mentioned to the pair that the court was full of the justices’ wives. Coffee suggested that detail indicated the outcome.
“People that knew what was important to the justices would recognize that it emphasized that the court, at least some of the judges, really thought that it was an important case,” Coffee said.
The case was argued a second time solely by Weddington on Oct. 11, 1972. On Jan. 23, 1973, the case was decided 7-2 in favor of Weddington’s arguments and abortion was effectively legalized.
A life of firsts
Weddington achieved many firsts as a trailblazer for women. In 1973 Weddington became the first Austin woman to join the 150-member Texas House of Representatives. She served for three terms, during which she authored multiple bills that became law, expanding women’s rights, including legal protections for sexual assault and rape victims. One of her legislative aides in the 1970s was Ann Richards, who would later become governor of Texas.
She was the first woman to take on the role of general counsel for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in 1977. As a special assistant to President Jimmy Carter, Weddington advised the administration on issues that impacted women and also helped find women for top political positions.
Her first job when she came to Washington was as general counsel of the Agriculture Department. The deputy secretary was longtime Texas Agriculture Commissioner John White, who later became the Democratic national chairman.
She moved to the White House as Carter’s top adviser for women’s issues at a time when the White House was trying unsuccessfully to pass the Equal Rights Amendment.
A year later, she was made assistant to the president for political affairs, a position she held until Carter left office.
Later, she ran the Texas State Office in Washington while Democrat Mark White was governor.
Weddington also gave lectures at Texas Woman’s University from 1981 to 1990 as a professor in the department of government and history. She then returned to the University of Texas, where she taught for almost 30 years.
Weddington wrote numerous books and received many awards for her work as a lawyer, activist and teacher.
An unsettled legacy
Weddington’s legacy is still up for debate as the Supreme Court decides Dobbs vs. Mississippi, a case that involves a direct challenge to Roe. A decision is expected in June 2022.
The court has never reversed course once it has recognized a constitutional right. But the court’s biggest conservative majority in decades has signaled a willingness to overturn Roe, both by taking the Mississippi case and by allowing a six-week ban to take effect in Texas three months ago.
“It is an egregiously wrong decision that has inflicted tremendous damage on our country and will continue to do so and take innumerable human lives unless and until this court overrules it,” Mississippi Solicitor General Scott Stewart said in arguing Dobbs before the high court Dec. 1.
“The court has never revoked a right that is so fundamental to so many Americans and so central to their ability to participate fully and equally in society,” U.S. Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar told the justices, arguing on behalf of the Biden administration.
The twin challenges from Mississippi and Texas have given abortion foes high hopes.
Texas’ Senate Bill 8 authorizes lawsuits against doctors, clinic workers, drivers or others who help a woman terminate a pregnancy after embryonic cardiac activity is detected. Awards start at $10,000. And the law allows for unlimited lawsuits for the same abortion, a ruinous threat and a potent deterrent.
Since the landmark Roe ruling, the U.S. has enacted 1,336 abortion restrictions. However, it is estimated that over 62 million legal abortions have been performed since the 1973 decision.
Meanwhile in Texas, abortion is currently prohibited after six weeks since Senate Bill 8, a law that went into effect on Sept. 1, has withstood many legal challenges, including at the high court. The law empowers privates citizens to sue anyone who “aids or abets” an abortion after fetal cardiac activity is detected.
Weddington never really considered the legal wranglings over.
In a memorable quote in Texas Monthly in February 2003, she said:
“I am sure when my obituary is written, the lead paragraph will be about Roe v. Wade. I thought, over a period of time, that the right of a woman to make a decision about what she would do in a particular pregnancy would be accepted — that by this time, the thirtieth anniversary of Roe v. Wade. , the controversy over abortion would have gradually faded away like the closing scenes of a movie and we could go on to other issues. I was wrong.”
Staff writers Nataly Keomoungkhoun and Hojun Choi contributed to this report.