Weddington, Sarah R. (1945—)

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Weddington, Sarah R. (1945—)

American lawyer and politician who argued Roe v. Wade before the Supreme Court. Born Sarah Ragle on February 5, 1945, in Abilene, Texas; daughter of Herbert Doyle Ragle (a Methodist minister) and Lena Catherine (Morrison) Ragle; McMurry College, B.S., 1965; University of Texas Law School, J.D., 1967; married Ron Weddington (divorced 1974).

Argued the case of Roe v. Wade before the Supreme Court (1971, 1972); elected to the Texas House of Representatives (1972); advised President Jimmy Carter on issues affecting women (1978–80); returned to private practice and became a popular college lecturer.

Sarah R. Weddington was born on February 5, 1945, in Abilene, Texas, the daughter of a Methodist minister who had an itinerant ministry in central Texas. An excellent student, she entered McMurry College at age 16, majoring in speech and education. However, she decided against a teaching career and after graduating from college in 1965 entered the University of Texas Law School. She and her classmate Linda Coffee were among the five women who earned degrees from the law school in 1967.

Though Weddington graduated in the top 25% of her class, discrimination against women in the field of law made it difficult for her to find work in Texas. While Coffee turned to bankruptcy law, Weddington worked on the American Bar Association's project to standardize legal ethics. Her career took a definite turn, however, after her husband Ron Weddington, still in school, introduced her to some graduate students who worked on The Rag, an underground feminist paper in Austin. These women were also involved with birth-control counseling, which included informing women with unwanted pregnancies which illegal abortion clinics in Mexico were reasonably safe. They consulted Weddington on whether they would be criminally liable for providing such information, which led to the question of a method for challenging the Texas statute (all but unchanged since 1854) banning abortion except in cases where the mother's life was in danger. As she would later explain in her book A Question of Choice, the issue interested Weddington partially because, while still in law school, she herself had obtained an illegal abortion in Mexico, going under the anesthetic while wondering whether she would live or die.

Although she was still only in her early 20s, with legal experience largely limited to simple divorces and wills, Weddington began compiling arguments, based on the right to privacy guaranteed in the Constitution, against the statute banning abortion. She teamed up with former classmate Coffee to find a woman for whom they could file a class-action suit challenging Texas' abortion laws. In 1969, they found her, an outof-luck, unemployed and pregnant former carnival barker named Norma Mc-Corvey , who in court papers was called "Jane Roe" to protect her privacy. At age 25, Weddington filed suit against the abortion statute in a federal court in Dallas.

Known as Roe v. Wade, the case became one of the most controversial in American history. Neither Weddington nor Coffee had ever tried a case in court before, but they won their class-action suit against the State of Texas. An appeal by the Texas attorney general led the case to the Supreme Court, which agreed to hear it. In mid-1970, Weddington began devoting all her energies to preparing for the case, quitting her job and enlisting law professors and others to hear her potential arguments. (McCorvey, meanwhile, still legally barred from obtaining an abortion, had given birth to a girl whom she put up for adoption. In later years, she worked in an abortion clinic before a religious conversion led her to switch sides on the debate and become a prized opponent of abortion rights.) The first hearing was held before the Supreme Court on December 13, 1971. In her opening argument, Weddington said, "I think it's without question that pregnancy to a woman can completely disrupt her life. It disrupts her body, it disrupts her education, it disrupts her employment, and it often disrupts her entire family life. And we feel that, because of the impact on the woman, this certainly, insofar as there are any rights which are fundamental, is a matter which is of such fundamental and basic concern to the woman involved that she should be allowed to make the choice as to whether to continue or to terminate her pregnancy." The State of Texas, in turn, argued that a fetus was a person, and therefore entitled to protection under the Constitution. A second hearing was held before the nine-member court on October 11, 1972. On January 21, 1973, the court ruled, in a 7–2 decision, that the state cannot prohibit a woman in consultation with her doctor from getting an abortion in the first trimester of pregnancy. The majority opinion, written by Justice Harry Blackmun, found that women's "right of personal privacy" included the right to an early abortion, and state statutes criminalizing such procedures were a violation of the due process clause in the 14th Amendment. (William Rehnquist, then a new member of the court, wrote the dissenting opinion.) The ruling also allowed greater state regulation of abortion in the second trimester and strong regulations in the final trimester.

Meanwhile, in 1972, Weddington had been elected to the Texas state legislature. During her first term, she co-sponsored a health care act that established life-saving procedures for kidney patients and also championed and passed House Bill 920, which made it illegal to deny credit or loans on the basis of gender. Weddington continued fighting for women's rights in her second term by co-sponsoring, with Kay Bailey Hutchison , House Bill 284, which made a woman's past sexual experiences inadmissible as evidence in rape cases. Expanding her focus, in her third term she fought for the establishment of state job agencies, funded school art programs through a city tax on hotel and motel stays and also sponsored a bill to create the Commission on the Status of Women.

In 1977, Weddington left Texas to become general counsel for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Washington, D.C. As general counsel, she was actively involved in policy-making and also supervised a staff of 350 employees. In September 1978, President Jimmy Carter named Weddington his special assistant for women's issues, arousing protest from anti-abortion groups. As the president's special assistant, Weddington fought hard to make sure that Carter remained committed to passing the Equal Rights Amendment, and worked to rebuild the National Advisory Committee on Women after Bella Abzug 's abrupt departure over policy differences with Carter. In 1980, after Carter lost his bid for reelection and the ERA was not passed, Weddington returned to Texas.

There she established a private law practice, and began teaching pre-law courses at the University of Texas at Austin. Weddington has been the recipient of numerous awards, including the Woman of the Year Award of the Texas Women's Political Caucus and the Susan B. Anthony Award from the National Organization for Women (both 1973), the Elizabeth Boyer Award from the Equity Action League (1978, 1992), the Margaret Sanger Award from the Planned Parenthood Federation of America (1980), and the Lecturer of the Year Award from the National Association for Campus Activities (1990). This last award was a result of her frequent lectures on college campuses, where she is an accomplished and popular speaker. In 1992, Weddington wrote A Question of Choice, both a history of Roe v. Wade and a reflection on the years since her victory in the case. She commented a year later, "It was a fantastic experience…. It is also something that, if anybody had said to me then, you will still be talking about this in twenty years, I would never have believed it…. I thought, that's done, now we can move on to other issues. And the current-day situation certainly says just how wrong I was about that."


Christian Science Monitor. September 26, 1996.

Crawford, Ann Fears, and Crystal Sasse Ragsdale. Women in Texas. Austin, TX: State House Press, 1992.

Irons, Peter, and Stephanie Guitton, eds. May It Please the Court. NY: The New Press, 1993.

Publishers Weekly. September 13, 1993, p. 10.

The Village Voice. January 27, 1998.

Ann M. Schwalboski , M.A., M.F.A., University of Wisconsin-Baraboo/Sauk County