Sarah Weddington may have helped secure the right to abortion for American women, but last night she told a packed Salomon 101 that today's pro-choice citizens need to stop resting on that victory.
With no prior litigation experience, Weddington successfully argued the landmark Roe v. Wade abortion case in the Supreme Court in 1973, when she was 27. Since then, she has served on the Texas House of Representatives and was special assistant for women's affairs to then-President Jimmy Carter. She now practices and teaches law in Austin, Texas. District 3 State Sen. Rhoda Perry introduced Weddington's lecture, which was titled "The Future of Choice in America" and hosted by the Brown Democrats.
"There is a stealth campaign now to make abortion unavailable, if not illegal," she said. "The powers behind this campaign are better organized and directed than we are." Weddington said many pro-choice citizens with whom she has spoken think it is impossible for Roe v. Wade to be overturned. But the bill passed by Congress in 2003 banning partial-birth abortions, the anti-abortion bill passed in South Dakota and the pending anti-abortion bill in Mississippi indicate that a complete ban of abortion is possible once again.
"We know what things were like when abortion was illegal and we don't want to go back," she said. When she attended the law school at the University of Texas at Austin in the early 1960s, doctors at the University of Texas Medical School would tell her how extensively they dealt with victims of botched self-abortions or poorly performed abortions, she said. "There were so many that they even had (abortion) wards where they would put these women," Weddington said.
When the Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade, she said the issue's importance to women figured prominently. Reproductive rights, the court found, determine everything from women's economic and psychological well-being to the quality of their family life, so women should be allowed to make their own decisions when it comes to abortion, she said.
But with the signing of the Congress' recent partial-birth abortion ban, this finding seems to have been annulled, she said. "If you look at the picture of Bush signing the bill it's him surrounded by 10 men," she said.
Weddington said she does not think it is highly likely that Roe v. Wade will be overturned, but it is more likely that Congress will pass additional restrictions against abortion. Reversing Roe v. Wade might prove less efficient for pro-life legislators, she said, because states would likely still uphold a woman's right to choose.
The best way to combat the current threats against abortion is to employ a combination of grassroots activism and intelligent voting for legislators who will promote pro-choice interests. "The agitators stir up interest in the issue, and the persuaders, or the elected officials, make sure the right decision happens with the law," she said.
Senators will be especially important because they vote on judicial appointments, she said. The appointment of John Roberts and Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court further compromises pro-choice interests, as both legislators lean toward the pro-life side, she said.
Weddington punctuated her speech with anecdotes about her days growing up in Texas, when women were only allowed to play half-court basketball and were not allowed to work while pregnant. She also described the drama of arguing a Supreme Court case with no experience.
She said she is proud of how far women have come in careers such as sports, but said, "When I won the Supreme Court case and wanted to read their opinion right away, I couldn't. There was no FedEx, no fax machine, no Internet. It's just shocking that in this modern day and age that the rights of Roe v. Wade are being threatened."
From observing polls and speaking at universities, she said she believes most Americans uphold a pro-choice perspective.
"The reason I'm spending time on college campuses is because we need reinforcements (to fight for abortion), and because of (college students) the day will be saved," she said.
In the question-and-answer session following her talk, a student asked Weddington how she would argue Roe v. Wade differently today. Weddington said instead of focusing on the need for due process, she would place more emphasis on gender equity and the excessive involvement of state and federal government in shaping abortion rights.
Amy Littlefield '09 said she was encouraged by Weddington's call to action. "I'm glad she appealed to the younger generation," Littlefield said. "I think we really need to get people in the younger generation to pay attention to this issue."