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Sarah Weddington, lawyer who argued for abortion rights in Roe vs. Wade, dies at 76

Texas attorney Sarah Weddington is seen in a 1978 photograph while working for the administration of President Jimmy Carter. Photo courtesy Jimmy Carter Library/National Archives and Records Administration
Texas attorney Sarah Weddington is seen in a 1978 photograph while working for the administration of President Jimmy Carter. Photo courtesy Jimmy Carter Library/National Archives and Records Administration

Dec. 27 (UPI) -- Sarah Weddington, a Texas lawyer who argued the Roe vs. Wade case before the U.S. Supreme Court five decades ago and helped established legal precedents for abortion, died in Austin on Sunday. She was 76.

The daughter of a Methodist minister, Weddington was raised in Abilene and graduated from law school at the University of Texas.

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When she was 26, she filed the landmark abortion lawsuit with former classmate Linda Coffee on behalf of Norma McCorvey -- who was then known only as "Jane Roe" to protect her identity -- in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas in 1970.

McCorvey discovered she was pregnant with her third child in 1969 and sought an abortion, which was mostly illegal under Texas law. The class-action suit was filed against Dallas County District Attorney Henry Wade.

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Weddington's death was announced on Twitter by Susan Hays, a former student who is running as a Democratic candidate for Texas agriculture commissioner.

"Sarah Weddington died this morning after a series of health issues," Hays tweeted. "She was my professor at [the University of Texas], the best writing instructor I ever had, and a great mentor."

"At 27, she argued Roe to SCOTUS -- a fact that always made me feel like a gross underachiever. Ironically, she worked on the case because law firms would not hire women in the early '70s, leaving her with lots of time for good trouble."

In 1973, the Supreme Court voted 7-2 to strike down Texas' ban as unconstitutional, holding that "right to privacy" established by the Fourteenth Amendment protected the rights of women to choose whether to seek an abortion.

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A new ban in Texas against abortions, which is believed to be the strictest in the country, is now challenging the landmark ruling.

Earlier this month, the Supreme Court allowed the ban, Senate Bill 8, to remain in place. However, justices voted 8-1 to allow a suit challenging the ban to proceed.

The bill bars abortions as soon as a fetal heartbeat can be detected, which can occur as soon as six weeks, and enforces the law by allowing private citizens to sue doctors and clinics that perform the practice.

After her Supreme Court victory, Weddington went on to become the first woman elected to the Texas House of Representatives in 1972. She later served as general counsel for the U.S. Department of Agriculture during the administration of former President Jimmy Carter before becoming a lecturer at Texas Woman's University and a professor at the University of Texas.

In a 2003 interview with Texas Monthly, Weddington presciently joked that the lead paragraph in her obituaries would be about Roe vs. 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," she said then.

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"That by this time [in 2003], 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."

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