AUSTIN, Texas — Sarah Weddington, a key figure in the legalization of abortion 40 years ago, can be found most days at her cluttered office in an old house a few blocks west of the Texas Capitol.
Weddington, now 67, is the reigning grande dame of Texas feminists. If you saw her in an Austin grocery store, or sitting at a stoplight in her 22-year-old silver Lexus, you'd have no clue about her accomplishments as a lawyer, a state representative and a top adviser to President Jimmy Carter. But you'd surely notice her carefully coiffed silver hair, piercing blue eyes and radiant smile.
Unlike most people, Weddington had her crowning achievement early in life. She was just 26 when she successfully argued Roe v. Wade before the U.S. Supreme Court. She had 30 minutes to convince the nine male justices that a Texas law making abortion a crime violated a woman's right to privacy.
When the court handed down its 7-2 decision on Jan. 22, 1973, abortion became legal in the United States. Weddington became a heroine to some and a villain to others. And abortion became a permanent, fiery fixture in American politics.
Today, Weddington is retired from the law. She accepts speaking engagements from universities and groups that support what she calls "reproductive freedom." Her phone has rung often in the weeks leading up to Tuesday's anniversary of Roe.
Forty years after the high court's decision, the politics swirling around the abortion issue remain as unsettled as ever.
"I deeply disagree with those who want to make abortion illegal," Weddington said in an interview last week. "If abortion were ever illegal again, the one thing I'm sure of is there would be illegal abortions. A lot of women will end up in back alleys. I would hate to see us go back to that."
Carol Tobias, president of the National Right to Life Committee, calls Jan. 22, 1973, "the saddest day in American history."
"What the other side seems to be saying is, 'We see the arms and the legs and we still have the right to kill that baby.' They don't care about the woman. They just want a dead baby," Tobias said. "As long as abortion is legal, pro-lifers will fight and never give up."
Roe said a fetus is not a "person" protected by the U.S. Constitution until it has developed to the point of viability, defined as "potentially able to live outside the mother's womb, albeit with artificial aid." The ruling held that a woman's right to privacy includes the right to have an abortion.
Abortion opponents nonetheless see the procedure as murder.
The lack of a national consensus makes abortion different from many other incendiary issues ostensibly settled by the Supreme Court. For example, the court said in Gideon v. Wainwright, a 1963 case, that a criminal defendant in a serious felony case has the right to an attorney and that the state must provide one if the defendant cannot afford to do so. Legal minds across the political spectrum now live comfortably with the principle enunciated in Gideon. Similarly, no credible person now argues that the state should force black and white children to attend separate schools.
R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., said all efforts to find middle ground on abortion have failed because the issue involves a clash of absolutes.
"Roe was a legal earthquake that awakened a massive number of evangelicals to the deadly reality of abortion," he wrote in 2012. "With remarkable speed, they soon educated themselves on the issue and then mobilized both politically and culturally."
Weddington, the daughter of a Methodist minister, grew up in west Texas and graduated from McMurry College in Abilene with an education degree. She was trained to be a teacher, but she wanted to be a lawyer despite the social barriers women faced in the mid-1960s.
The University of Texas School of Law admitted her in June 1965, one of about 40 women among 1,600 students.
She met Ron Weddington, her future husband. By 1967, in her third year of law school, Weddington became pregnant. She and Ron decided they were not ready to marry and have children. They decided abortion was the correct option for them.
That was her first exposure to the underground world of illegal abortion, in which women scrambled to find qualified doctors willing to risk their licenses to perform the procedure. Some abortion doctors of that era had no medical credentials. Infection and uteral damage left women sick, or dead.
Ron and Sarah ended up going to the Mexican border town of Piedras Negras for their abortion. Everything went well. The cost was $400.
"For me and countless women who put their lives at risk to control their own destinies, the world did change in 1973 when Roe v. Wade became the law of the land," Weddington wrote in a 1992 memoir, A Question of Choice. "If I had had the baby, I would never have been able to support myself and graduate from law school."
Ron and Sarah married in 1968.
After her graduation from law school, Weddington became involved with a group of Austin women — mostly University of Texas graduate students — who had started an abortion referral network for women.
Essentially, it was an "underground railroad" that funneled women to illegal abortion clinics.
The Austin group began to worry that its members could be charged as accessories to a crime if police focused on their activities. They decided to file a federal lawsuit challenging the Texas law against abortion.
The "Wade" in Roe v. Wade was Henry Wade, the longtime Dallas County district attorney. The Dallas connection came about when Weddington contacted a law school friend, Linda Coffee, a practicing attorney in north Texas. Together, they looked for a plaintiff, eventually recruiting Norma McCorvey, a young woman who was pregnant and seeking an abortion. In the pleadings, she became "Jane Roe."
Roe v. Wade was filed in federal district court in Dallas as a class action on behalf of all Texas women whose right to privacy might be violated by the state law against abortion. (McCorvey never got her abortion, giving birth in 1970, and she later became an abortion foe. And Wade never prosecuted anyone involved in the case.)
On June 17, 1970, a three-judge federal panel struck down the Texas abortion statute. The district attorney and the state attorney general appealed, leading, eventually, to the Supreme Court ruling.
Weddington returned to Austin after arguing Roe v. Wade, unsure what she'd do next. The 1972 political campaigns were taking shape, and she decided to run for state representative.
Among her campaign workers was Ann Richards, the future Texas governor. Cecile Richards, Ann's teenage daughter, also campaigned for Weddington. Cecile is now president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.
Weddington won, becoming the first woman elected to the Texas House from Travis County. Richards became her administrative assistant and lifelong friend.
Days after Weddington was sworn into office, the Supreme Court released its Roe v. Wade decision, written by Justice Harry Blackmun.
In the 40 years since, state legislatures have passed hundreds of laws regulating policies and practices on abortion, conducting what amounts to a guerrilla war against the procedure.
Texas, for example, has "informed consent" laws that require a doctor to speak to his patient about the abortion procedure and a mandatory 24-hour waiting period.
Karen Garnett, who heads the Catholic Pro-Life Committee in Dallas, still stations volunteers in front of five abortion clinics six days a week. The 24-hour waiting period, she said, gives those volunteers two opportunities to approach pregnant women to try to persuade them to reconsider.
"There has been a tremendous effort in the state legislatures to turn back the tide, and it's working," Garnett said.
During her years in the Texas House, Weddington worked successfully to pass laws allowing women to obtain credit in their own names, without their husbands' approval. She and Kay Bailey Hutchison, a House colleague who would later become a U.S. senator, helped pass laws that prevented criminal defense attorneys from bringing up a rape victim's sexual history during trial.
Weddington left the House in 1977 and joined President Jimmy Carter's administration as general counsel at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Later, she became a White House adviser on women's issues.
After her return to Austin, she taught government at the University of Texas for 26 years.
She said she looks back on her work on Roe vs. Wade with no regrets.
"If some people dislike me, then it just has to be," she said. "It's offset by people who approach me and talk about how much the decision has been positive for people." Some women, she said, tell her they got pregnant and didn't have abortions. "But they were happy it was their choice."
Today, Weddington's office is decorated haphazardly with the mementoes of her life as a feminist lawyer, politician and teacher. There's a sign on one wall that says, "Don't Mess with Texas Women."
Two boxes filled with Ms. magazines from the early 1970s sit on the floor near a bound copy of the Roe vs. Wade decision signed by all nine justices.
Her marriage to Ron ended years ago, but she says they remain friends. She never remarried or had children and lives alone in a quiet Austin neighborhood. She has battled breast cancer and watched several close friends pass away — Ann Richards, Texas writers Molly Ivins and Liz Carpenter, and Lady Bird Johnson.
But she insists she is not lonely.
"Some people really need someone with them all the time, but I am not one of those people," she said.
Speaking engagements, travel and updating her autobiography occupy her time. She's also trying to figure out how to organize the boxes of documents and photos accumulated over a lifetime.
As a former legislator, she has a burial plot in the Texas State Cemetery, near the grave of Bigfoot Wallace, a legendary Texas Ranger. She said she hopes to be buried under a slab of marble wired to an audio device.
"You could push 'play' and I could talk to people. But I'm not sure the cemetery people allow that sort of thing."