When Sarah Weddington first argued what would become the landmark Roe v. Wade abortion case, she was 25 years old, and a recent graduate of UT Law School. The case she won culminated in one of the most well known and consequential decisions in the modern history of the court. Weddington passed away Sunday at 76.
The Roe decision – that Texas had violated the plaintiff”s constitutional right to privacy as outlined in the First, Fourth, Ninth and Fourteenth amendments to the Constitution – led to the legalization of abortion across the United States.
Weddington’s passing comes as many Americans wonder how much longer the precedents set by Roe v. Wade will endure. The U.S. Supreme Court is currently weighing a case from Mississippi that legal scholars consider to be the most serious challenge to Roe in decades.
Though Weddington was best-known for her role in that historic case, she remained in the public spotlight: at age 27, she won a seat in the Texas Legislature, serving three terms; she was a lifelong advocate of women’s rights; and taught at both the University of Texas and Texas Woman’s University.
U.S. Congressman Lloyd Doggett served alongside Weddington in the Texas Legislature. He now represents the 35th district of Texas in the U.S. House. Listen to the interview with Doggett above or read the transcript below.
This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:
Texas Standard: You and Sarah Weddington both represented Austin at the Texas Legislature in the 1970s. What are some of your memories of her at that time?
Congressman Lloyd Doggett: Well, I’m very pleased to join with you to celebrate her life and all that she accomplished. Sarah lived and worked across the street from my parents in downtown Austin in a small frame house. That’s where I met her about 50 years ago. And that’s where she continued to work and live right up until the time of her passing.
She and her husband, Ron, took me to lunch one day and told me that Sarah was exploring a race for the Texas House. It really seemed pretty near impossible for her to do that. A woman had never been elected to the Legislature from Austin before. Austin was, at that time, though folks don’t believe it now, a fairly conservative area. And so for her to be successful, she found another woman who was new to Austin to manage her campaign and her name was Ann Richards. And that was the beginning of the significant turn in Austin politics to a more progressive era.
I was elected the next year and served with Sarah, and really, I think about three other women in the Texas Legislature at that time. So we worked together on a number of pieces of legislation. I think the main thing to note about Sarah is that while she’s rightfully celebrated for her very important work on the fundamental constitutional freedom concerning privacy and the right to reproductive freedom, she was interested in many other issues and she had an impact in other areas. She had passion for reproductive freedom, but it was also matched with her compassion for our neighbors.
I want to ask about whether you think Sarah Weddington’s role in Roe helped or hurt her during her time at the Texas Capitol.
I think, generally, it helped her. I would say that in her first race, this was not a significant issue. And indeed, during the 11 years that I served in the Texas Legislature, this was not the most significant issue – anything like it is today. We never passed a single erosion of Roe during that 11 years.
What helped was the fact that she had such a focus on women’s rights. And when she got to the Legislature, she worked on bills. Again, it seems very anachronistic, but she helped pass legislation to get credit for women so they could do it in their own name rather than their husbands’. She was concerned about compensation for rape victims and pregnant teachers being dismissed – just a number of pieces of legislation that she worked on when she was there. That related to the basic issue of the right of women to control their own lives – so important and remains an issue today.
A lot of people have talked about the impact that the Roe ruling had on abortion rights nationally over the years. Do you think that it changed politics or lawmaking in Texas?
Well, I think in the years following Roe, there were a few bills that were introduced in Texas, but none of them were approved, and there was not the kind of groundswell of involvement [in a] major culture issue that the Republican Party has turned it into today. And we also didn’t have, at that time the courts beginning to erode this fundamental protection.
I think it is so critical today that we honor Sarah by doing all we can to protect this constitutional freedom and the work we’ve been doing in Congress. I’m an author, along with others, of the Women’s Health Protection Act and the Access to Birth Control Act. It’s really important to get those adopted into law. We passed them through the United States House, but we have the filibuster and Republican obstruction over in the Senate right now to interfere with their adoption.