Today marks the 40th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision. In a landmark action, the justices ruled 7-2 that laws prohibiting abortion violate a woman’ constitutional right to privacy.
As usual, several thousand people have come here to Washington, D.C., today to protest the decision. Most of them represent fundamentalist and Catholic churches and schools that oppose abortion for theological reasons.
I respect their right to state their views. This is America, and we all have the right to speak our minds. But I do not believe that American laws should be based on religious doctrine. Thus the crusade to ban abortion raises some fundamental church-state issues.
When Roe was debated before the high court four decades ago, a young Texas lawyer named Sarah Weddington argued the case for reproductive freedom. She was only 26 years old at the time.
Since her Supreme Court appearance, Weddington has remained active in the battle for women’s rights and other progressive causes. In the 1990s, she served as a member of the Americans United Board of Trustees.
TIME Magazine recently interviewed Weddington about the reproductive justice issue. She was asked about the role of religion in the debate and whether it makes the constitutional issue hard for some people to understand.
“Sometimes I think it is,” she replied, “because some people just say, ‘My faith is opposed to abortion.’ But we live in a country where we can have many faiths, and we don’t impose the law of one faith on everybody. And so we go back to the Constitution. What was the view of our founders? And it was that there are many parts of life which are so personal – the word privacy is not in the constitution but certainly the concept is – and so the founders basically were saying, ‘We really believe that the government should not make our most important decisions.’
“When I was arguing Roe vs. Wade,” she continued, “there were a lot of religious groups that were saying, what the anti-abortion laws do to women in terms of their health, physical and psychological, isn’t right. We’ve got to change it. So the United Methodist Church, Unitarian Universalist Alliance, and the Jewish groups, a whole variety of religious groups filed in our favor.”
The audio of Weddington’s Supreme Court argument is available online. TIME asked her if she ever listens to it.
“Yes, I do,” she replied. “It’s the argument where 40 years ago, I was saying, ‘We are not asking this court to decide that abortion is good, or that everyone should have one. We are asking this court to decide that that issue is one for the individual to decide, not the government.’ And it’s the same thing that I would say today.”
As we debate this issue in the coming years, that’s an important point to keep in mind.