Q&A with Sarah Weddington

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Sarah Weddington
Sarah Weddington

In your trailblazing career you have been an attorney, state legislator, women’s rights activist, general counsel to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, adviser to President Jimmy Carter, and a sought-after speaker and writer. In addition, you teach at the University of Texas and mentor promising students. But you will always be best known as the attorney who successfully argued Roe v. Wade before the Supreme Court at age 27.

Q. This landmark decision, which legalized abortion, has been controversial since it became law 37 years ago. These days opponents seem to be gaining ground as more and more states pass laws that restrict or regulate abortions. The latest Gallup Poll, meanwhile, shows 47 percent of adult Americans are anti-abortion while 45 percent support a woman’s right to choose this procedure. What do you think of these developments? Is Roe v. Wade in serious trouble?

A. First I’ve written several press reports and newsletter documents indicating that one poll you’re citing was not accurate and was a misrepresentation. More people have always said a woman should have the right to choose. But if you get down to asking, “Should she have to consult somebody?” or “Should she have to do it before a certain period?” then you get some real variety.

Q. You think these polls are too nuanced?

A. I don’t know. I just know that the way that statistic is presented is inaccurate.

Q. So you’re not too concerned?

A. Now, that’s not true. It’s just that people do still think a woman should have the right to make her own decision. But when you ask people “Do you think this or that?” sometimes their answers differ from when you ask “Do you think the government ought to require this or prohibit this?” Then they are not so enthusiastic about the government making those decisions.

Now I do think we have some serious problems that stem from a variety of things. One is that there are fewer and fewer people who remember what it was like before Roe v. Wade. When I talk to people younger than I am I tell them about the IOB wards—the Infected Obstetrics wards—we used to have in our public hospitals here in Texas. This is where women who had done self abortion or illegal abortion were treated for perforations, infections, and in all kinds of ways in order to save their lives, their fertility, and their health. That’s why doctors and the medical associations helped us so much to win Roe v. Wade. They wanted to see an end to those IOB wards. And the day Roe was decided those wards could be closed.

Q. Have women’s rights supporters failed to pass along to younger generations the ideals that initially inspired the abortion-rights movement? Do younger people understand women at one time had no choice?

A. A few do; most don’t. I don’t think younger people, because of their ages and the age of Roe, have a good understanding of what it could mean if Roe v. Wade were overturned. We have a group of younger women today who think it’s always been this way and if they personally want to make a decision of some kind, they can. We’ve been thinking of how to correct this.

I’ve talked to clinic directors who say they’ve actually seen people picketing outside who surreptitiously came inside later to get services. That’s certainly their choice. You can say whatever you want, but if you’re in a position where you want to make a choice, it’s still available to you.

Q. Are pro-choice forces losing the propaganda war? Some have suggested that the term “pro-choice” isn’t strong or persuasive enough and that something like “pro-freedom” might be more effective. Younger people, like my daughter, approach the semantics differently. They never use the term “pro-life.” Instead they use “pro-choice” and “anti-choice.”

A. Absolutely. That’s what I always use; I never use anything else because I think “anti-choice” is really what they are. They’re not always leading the charge to make sure people get the medical assistance whether for end-of-life matters or for very serious illnesses not related to reproduction at all.

Q. Could you start a new propaganda effort without sacrificing any basic ideals? What do you think of the term “pro-freedom” for instance?

A. I have to think about that. There are so many different ways that could be used. A friend suggested recently that we need something like the movie made a few years ago, called Iron Jawed Angels. It dealt with the women who worked so hard to get the right to vote and the price they paid for that, getting jailed, being force fed. This friend said we need something like this to show what it was like before Roe v. Wade.

Q. Are you thinking of a documentary, or a TV series based on your book, A Question of Choice?

A. I think something like that would be helpful. Time magazine published an issue in 2003 called “80 Days That Changed the World.” In my piece for this issue I wrote about a button we often wore. It showed a coat hanger with a slash across it. While trying to write my piece I was sitting on an airplane in an aisle seat wearing this button and the flight attendant kept looking at it until finally after several times around she asked, “What do you have against coat hangers?” And I had to explain the symbolism. Coat hangers for us represented the horrors of back alley abortions.

The point is we’ve lost the understanding of what it was like before Roe and what it would be like if Roe were overturned. So I do think we need to find better ways to communicate that information.

Q. You were elected to the Texas Legislature when you were 26 and re-elected twice. During your three terms you introduced or fought for bills that gave women some of the rights we take for granted today, such as a woman’s right to obtain a credit card without her husband’s signature.

A. Or without a man’s signature. Sometimes it was the father who signed.

Q. If you were in the State Legislature today what would you be fighting for?

A. A variety of things. We were able to pass—federally—bills that gave women the right to time off during a pregnancy and the right not to be fired for being pregnant. Today I think we need more time off, more health care, more things related to pregnancy than we have now. In the Texas Legislature we passed a bill that really said a rape trial cannot just focus on the issue of a woman’s character. Before that, 1973 or 1975, the defense attorney in a rape trial would basically say, “Haven’t you ever had relations with a man before? What was so terrible about this time?”

In other words, the woman’s character was on trial. We changed it to say you could not bring her character into the trial unless you first had a hearing outside the presence of the jury to determine whether it was actually relevant. We tried to make it so her character was not at trial but, rather, whether an un-consented sexual contact had happened. Up to that point, the woman had to pay the hospital for the exam needed to prove a sexual contact had occurred and the person the sperm belonged to. We got that changed so the government would pay.

Now, on a national level, we’re encouraging police to be conscientious and nonjudgmental when investigating complaints about unwanted sexual contact. Just recently a sports figure had sexual contact with a woman. Once his friend had guided her to a place where it was dark and away from everybody he, according to her story, came in with an intimate part already out and she was saying “no, no, no,” but he continued. Then once contact occurred he just left. So I think we need a more sophisticated idea about what consent involves.

There have been incidents, for instance, when women were drinking too much, and I don’t condone that, but this doesn’t give the man the right to take advantage. And you’ve got all the rape drugs and various things that are slipped to women. So there are many things around the issues of rape, sexual assault and battery that still need serious attention. So I would certainly look at that (if still in the Texas Legislature.) And I would look at what women are paid in comparison to what men are paid in various aspects. We want to equalize that in a better way. We’ve seen some real forward movement recently, with women getting elected and hired for various positions. But there are still issues that need to be addressed.

Q. Norma McCorvey, the Jane Roe of Roe v. Wade, had a publicized religious conversion in 1995 and became anti-choice. She has since written several books and made several commercial videos. How much impact have her activities had on the women’s rights movement?

A. Almost none. I’m sure those who were already on that side take pleasure in what she’s done. But nobody ever says to me, “Well, Norma McCorvey said this or that.” She filed a lawsuit trying to overturn Roe v. Wade. That has now been thrown out of the courts. I wish it hadn’t happened, but she the right to change her mind. I don’t think it has made any real impact; other things have, but not that.

Q. Ever wish you had picked a different plaintiff?

A. Oh, yes. But it was actually a class action so it was not just for one person. It was for all who were or might become pregnant and want the option for abortion. So in many ways there’s too much focus put on one person. At the time she seemed very willing to be the plaintiff and for 25 years she was fervently in favor of Roe v. Wade. She sold her story for a book, I Am Roe. She sold her story for a movie, Roe vs. Wade.

At the time I met her—and this is all in her book or I wouldn’t mention any of it—she had been to state reformatory school, never finished high school, had a child already that her mother took on the grounds that Norma was unfit to raise a child. So there were facts she presented to us that made it seem a court would be more sympathetic to all the hard luck parts of her life. But the case was for all women.

Q. Has being the major spokesperson for Roe v. Wade all these years put a burden on you?

A. Any time you can fundamentally alter laws and opportunities for women that you really believe in it’s worth the effort, and I felt very strongly that a lot of limitations on women had to be changed. So the opportunity to help push back burdens and limitations on women has been a true joy and something I appreciate being part of. Today it would be much harder to have victories that are noticeable and that a lot of people understand. Certainly there is a group fervently opposed to reproductive rights and sometimes that focus is not pleasant. Sometimes I’d rather not have it. I was in Houston recently for a major event with Houston Planned Parenthood. About two blocks away from the forum for this event I saw all kinds of protestors and picketers, a lot of them young. And there were police on horseback, police on foot, police in cars. And I thought, “My Gosh, why all this attention?” Then I got inside and discovered the new mayor of Houston was there. So I realized the police protection was really for her, not for me.

Q. When you do face hecklers, how do you handle the situation?

A. Basically, it’s never to become angry or to yell because if you do you lose your supporters in the audience and you’re not going to change the protestors’ minds. So most of the time I allow a little time to pass to see if they don’t settle down. If they don’t, at some point security will ask them to leave. I read recently that Karl Rove was some place speaking about his latest book and there were hecklers. He said to them, “Let me present my comments and when I finish I’ll allow you a few minutes to question me.” Evidently that technique worked for him. But it depends on the audience and the place.

Q. You’ve been an adjunct professor now at UT since the 1980s. Tell me about your classes.

A. I have two classes. One is a pre-law class for seniors and occasionally juniors who have a 3.5 or above (grade point) average. They are bright, basically good writers, just wonderful students. And they are interested in law primarily. I have had students interested in medicine and other fields where law has an effect. We use a law school text book and they do a paper using the resources of the law school library. I try to prepare them for what a law school class will be like and how they might succeed once they get there. Once they take my class, they know whether they would enjoy law school or whether they don’t want to do that. I’m lucky to still have contact with a number of my former students, many of whom are lawyers and really excellent attorneys. It’s fun to watch them progress.

The second class is called Leadership in America. It is for students already involved in some leadership activities and who want to learn more about this field. I introduce them to leadership concepts and reading but mostly I get them to interact with people who are in leadership positions now. These leaders talk to the students about the pluses and the minuses, because there are always both. Again, it’s fun to watch them as they leave UT. It’s a joy to teach because I have what every teacher covets—good, bright students who want to work. Sometimes freshmen and sophomores have a little difficulty in limiting their own freedom and doing their class work. But by the time they’re seniors they’re serious.

Q. Do your students question you often about Roe v. Wade?

A. They do in the fall class, particularly, because that’s a law class and they read several cases that relate to Roe v. Wade. In the spring (leadership) class, not as much except for the section that talks about the cost of leadership, and there they do ask some about it.

Q. In general, would you say your students today are liberal, conservative or somewhere in between?

A. It varies. One of my students last semester had come back from military service, had done two tours in Iraq and was back to get his undergraduate degree and then get his officer’s commission. He works part time for one of the most conservative members of the Texas House. Then you get another student who is definitely liberal. And you get a bunch who are in-between. Most would probably self-identify as Democrats but a good proportion are Republicans.

We went to the (Texas) Senate where a Republican senator was our host. In the House we had a Democrat as host. So I’m conscious of keeping the focus on more general principles, rather than, “Are you a D?” “Are you an R?” “Are you an I?” I think for students what’s important is how you achieve leadership positions and how you deal with difficult times, because there will be difficult times. In fact I’m collecting stories about people who’ve been in key positions and lose them—in corporate or political or other situations—and how they react to that. I have a couple of articles right now on the former New York governor, Eliot Spitzer, who’s now trying to reconstruct his life, partially as a CNN commentator. And there are others who have certainly done that. I think the students should know there are a lot of pluses to leadership. It’s interesting; you’re never bored. But there are also minuses.

Q. You have written one book, A Question of Choice, which details your preparation for and your winning of the Roe v. Wade case. Now you’re working on a second book. Tell me about this.

A. I can’t say I’ve been exactly on schedule. But I want to write about leadership. I want to look back and see what compelled me to become a leader and what have been the high points and the low points in my history not so much just in terms of Roe. For brevity this background had to be left out in A Question of Choice except for one paragraph that deals with some leadership matters. Other than that it’s all based on Roe and it ended in 1992. I want to bring that book up-to-date and also talk about some of the things I use in speeches that young people are interested in, aside from the reproductive issues.

Q. Will you stress that humor is important in speeches?

A. Yes. In fact I heard a great quote last week about how humor is the best way to form human relationships.

Q. Do you have a title, a publisher and when do you expect to publish?

A. No. I went to New York recently and talked to my agent. She’s waiting for me to submit an outline. So I hope I will have a publisher but if not I will publish it myself and do e-publication. In fact, I may decide to only go that route because Apple is going to have a new effort on e-publishing and that way a writer could print things that are shorter but could print several of them or have them available for people to download. It seems that younger people are much more likely to read something on an i-Pad or Kindle. They read the New York Times on line. I want the physical paper. So I’m conscious of how time is passing and maybe how we do things should be altered.

Q. How else are you planning to reach out to young people?

A. I think, basically, it’s going to take interviewing younger people. We’ve been talking here in Austin about a women’s conference bringing together three distinct groups. One includes the women my age who do remember when women could only play half-court basketball and after two dribbles it was called traveling, a technical violation. Then there are the very young women who cannot imagine a woman stopping at center court while playing basketball because all they’ve ever known is running full court. If someone told them they were just allowed two dribbles they would dribble right over them.

Then you have women in the middle who have seen changes and don’t take things as much for granted. I think the younger ones today are much more focused on international women’s issues than we were when we were growing up. It took all the effort we could muster to focus on events here in the U.S. We were conscious of women in other countries but it wasn’t our focus.

Q. Are you thinking of a major, international women’s conference here in Austin?

A. We’re talking to people about it, to see if there would be enough support. You would need three round tables, or something like that, because there’s a real difference in how these three different age groups look at things.

Q. Would you feature some major speakers, like yourself?

A. Sure, but you’d also have a lot of time for discussion to bring out the attitudes of these different groups and what they are focused on.

Q. Will you invite men to attend?

A. We will certainly invite them. I don’t think they would be the major presenters. But we’re just beginning to determine how we can stage this so it will be effective. At so many conferences you have speakers and discussions, but nothing happens. If we are going to put a lot of time and effort in this, we want it to have impact.

Q. Will women’s reproductive rights be protected under the new health bill?

A. You can ask that question of six people and you will get six answers. I’m still trying to figure that out. I know Cecile Richards, the daughter of (former Texas Governor) Ann Richards, and now president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, believes that the pill, or ways to prevent pregnancy, should be included under provisions relating to preventive health care. Now, there’s a long way between here and what will eventually be decided. I think a lot of women will be covered for medical concerns that weren’t covered before the bill passed. But exactly what and how and at what cost, we don’t know yet. One of the problems here in Texas is that a whole lot of new people are now eligible for health care. So the question becomes, “And who is going to provide it?” In recent years the (Texas) Legislature has not appropriated a lot of money for the preparation of health professionals and it’s unlikely it will do so this coming session. But this has to happen if we are to have trained professionals available to provide medical care to these newly eligible people.

Q. When you worked for President Carter you helped Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg get her first appointment to the bench; she was later appointed to the Supreme Court. How do regard Elena Kagan, President Obama’s latest Supreme Court nominee?

A. It’s exciting to see another woman nominated. If she is confirmed, it will be the first time in history we’ve had three women on the Supreme Court. But I think almost everyone who is interested and trying to read her background would have the same answer. None of us know what her positions are on just about anything. She hasn’t made any comments that would be illuminating. So we are all watching with interest.

Q. As a cancer survivor you’ve become a major voice in the fight against breast cancer. Are we making progress?

A. We are making progress but there is no magic pill or shot and so progress is measured in our continuing research into better ways to help people survive. In 2002, Molly Ivins and I were the keynote presenters for the Breast Cancer Resource Center here in Austin along with Shannon Sedwick of Esther’s Follies. And I will be the keynote speaker for the breast cancer benefit in Austin this year, on September 26. Shannon again will help. The Breast Cancer Resource Center here does a calendar every year. For the 2010 calendar my group sponsored a woman who had breast cancer the same time that we did. She is “Ms. November.” That was the top fundraiser for the center. The woman who was Miss November has a metastasis so she makes a big point about how some people never get out of treatment. My sister, as you may know, died of breast cancer.

Q. How is your health now? You’re looking well.

A. I feel good although I certainly go back to Dr. John Sandbach, my oncologist, every year. I feel very fortunate; I had great doctors. My surgeon here in Austin is Dr. Charles Livingston. He was wonderful. I told him I did not like the image you see on TV of the doctor standing in the operating room waiting for the patient to be rolled in. So I asked him if he would come to my room and walk with me to the operating room, even though I would be on the gurney. And he did. I’ve always been so grateful because to me, going to the emergency room together symbolized we were fighting this together. I had a woman anesthesiologist, Dr. Carolyn Biebas, who I liked very much. Dr. Sandbach treated my sister; he came to her service and I will always be grateful. We are lucky in Austin to have such good medical facilities that we can be treated here in our home town. I also had a wonderful group of women supporters. They went with me to chemo at the beginning until I was comfortable with what was happening. They brought food on weekends, after I had had chemo. Your friends and family are such an important part of getting over cancer treatment. I have a friend who offered me a T-shirt. I didn’t take it because it didn’t quite apply. But it said, “Yes, these are fake; my real ones tried to kill me.”

Q. Is there anything I haven’t asked about that you would like to discuss?

A. I find it exciting to watch younger people and what they are doing because they are so bright; they have so much more self-confidence than I did at their age and so much potential. When I was graduating from McMurry College in Abilene, I was secretary of the student body. I had been told women could not be vice president or president, they had to be secretary. And so I ran for secretary and won. But my roommate and I were unhappy that a woman’s chances stopped at secretary, so we ran my boyfriend for vice president and her boyfriend for president and we pretty much ran the student government from our suite. Women no longer need to go through subterfuge. We now have women at UT, Austin, who are running leadership positions at every level. We have had women as president of UT.

One of my students talked with me recently about President Obama’s comments to students at another college where he said, “You can do anything.” I think it’s a little more complicated than that, especially because I worry about the financial situation these students are going into—how hard it is to find jobs and to pay for graduate educations. But I do think they have a wider idea of what they might be.

When I was graduating from McMurry women were told they could be secretaries, nurses or teachers. I planned to teach eighth graders to love Beowulf. That didn’t work out too well. So I went to the college dean and said, “I want to go to law school.” And he said, “You can’t. My son went to law school and it was too hard for him.” So that was the moment I decided I would go to law school. It took someone to tell me I couldn’t do that for me to decide, “Oh, yes, I will.”

I look at young women now and they don’t have any questions about becoming lawyers. It’s also interesting to see how much their parents, including fathers, encourage them. So it is a different generation. Young people have different concepts about themselves. Their abilities are different. They’re better. They’ve traveled more and that’s part of this global view they have of things. So it’s going to be fun to watch and see what they are able to do and how much further they may go than those of us of a different generation.

Gwen Gibson is an veteran journalist with many years of experience in print media as a reporter, writer, editor and columnist. In her early career she worked full-time for United Press International, The New York Herald Tribune and the New York Daily News. In recent years, as a freelance writer, she has contributed to many newspapers and magazines.  (Gibson has written one play and three books, none of which were best sellers, as well as scores of lyrics, two of which were actually recorded.)

This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License, and can be republished with attribution and a link to The Austin Bulldog. If you re-use this report, please let us know by e-mailing [email protected].

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