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Originally published January 21, 2013 at 7:42 PM | Page modified January 21, 2013 at 10:20 PM

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Roe v. Wade lawyer to appear Tuesday at Town Hall

Sarah Weddington, the attorney who argued for Roe v. Wade in front of the Supreme Court, reflects on the case, her personal history and the current state of reproductive politics in America.

Seattle Times staff columnist


‘Sarah Weddington: 40 Years of Choice’

Tuesday, Town Hall Seattle; sold out.


Last week, Time magazine ran a cover story saying that abortion was in trouble, that the historic Roe v. Wade decision that made the procedure legal 40 years ago could be chipped away to nothing by conservative politicians.

“I don’t see it that way,” said Sarah Weddington, the Texas attorney who argued the landmark case decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1973, and who will speak about her experience Tuesday at Town Hall.

“With President Obama in the White House for four more years,” she said, “any Supreme Court vacancies will be filled with a justice who supports abortion rights.”

The concern, she said, is preserving access to the procedure.

“The availability of a safe abortion is very much under attack,” Weddington said from her office in Austin. “You have states that have a majority of people in the House or the Senate opposed to abortion who are coming up with all kinds of ways to make access impossible.”

Last year, 43 laws to restrict access to abortion were passed in 19 states — the second-highest number of measures passed in a single year, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit that does sexual and reproductive-health research.

The year before that had the highest number.

In Ohio, legislators tried to advance bills to practically ban abortion and prevent women from going to Planned Parenthood health centers for basic health care.

It makes no sense, Weddington said: “Providing contraception is the best way to prevent abortion.”

Nor does it make sense to make abortion illegal.

We’ll go back, she said, to when women who underwent illegal abortions ended up in hospital obstetric wards, where doctors tried — and sometimes failed — to save them from internal infections and injuries.

After four decades, Weddington is used to the seemingly circular arguments against abortion — and standing up for women’s rights on all fronts.

“I was one of the many young women in the ’60s who chafed against the restrictions placed on women,” she said. “We wanted to live in the wider world that was available.”

Available — but not really. If you wanted a credit card, you had to have a husband or father to sign for you. If you wanted to play basketball, it was half-court.

“I used to ask, ‘Why can’t we keep running?’ and the coach said, ‘All that bouncing and jiggling could hurt your innards, and those are your meal ticket!’ ”, Weddington said. “I was determined to have some other meal ticket.”

She was told law school would be too hard for her but entered the University of Texas anyway — one of five women in her law-school class. Upon graduation, and despite being in the top quarter of her class, she couldn’t get a job.

One Dallas firm wouldn’t hire her, they said, because they couldn’t curse at her; she was a woman. Another firm turned her down because, surely, she had to get home to make dinner every night.

In the early ’70s, Weddington was part of a group of graduate students at the University of Texas gathering information about abortion providers. The plan was to distribute the information to newspapers so that women knew where to go for help. But they worried they could be prosecuted for doing so.

One student, Judy Smile, suggested they file a lawsuit challenging Texas’ anti-abortion laws. Weddington took the case.

“I didn’t think it was a Supreme Court case,” she said. “I thought it was one of many.”

It wasn’t. Weddington, 26, and her client, “Jane Roe” (her real name was Norma McCorvey), found themselves in front of the nine male justices and on the national stage. The decision came through: The right to an abortion was found to be constitutional.

Weddington would go on to serve three terms in the Texas House of Representatives and serve as an assistant to President Carter. She is now an attorney, a speaker and an adjunct professor of law at the University of Texas at Austin.

Weddington worries that today’s young women don’t grasp how much work it took to get there; not just to the Supreme Court but to the U.S. Senate, and yes, to the right to choose.

It is a right, she said, that must be protected.

“The first thing we need to do is try and get young people involved again,” Weddington said, “and convince them that there really is a problem.”

She recalled being on an airplane, and wearing a pin bearing the image of a clothes hanger with a slash through it. The message: No more clothes-hanger procedures. Keep abortion safe and legal.

The flight attendant looked at it a few times, then stopped at Weddington’s seat and asked, “What do you have against clothes hangers?”

Weddington laughed, but the message was sobering.

“We can’t assume that what we know or what we remember is what younger women know or remember,” she said. “So many of us who have worked on these issues are just tired. We need a younger group taking leadership.”

It’s not widely known that Weddington had an illegal abortion in 1967, when she was unmarried and in law school.

Her partner (now her husband) had to find a place in Mexico for her to have the procedure.

“I did not believe I had the time and money, etc., to be able to raise a child,” she said. “I don’t want women to ever go through what I did.”

Nicole Brodeur: