Sarah Weddington, the attorney who successfully argued the landmark Roe v. Wade case before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1973 that established abortion rights, died Dec. 26. With her death, the nation has lost not only a powerful advocate of reproductive rights but also a strong supporter of separation of church and state.
Although she was best known for arguing the landmark Roe case at age 26, Weddington racked up many accomplishments. A native Texan, she served in the Texas House of Representatives (where she shepherded passage of a law allowing women to have their own credit without a husband’s co-signature), held positions in the federal government during the Jimmy Carter presidency, taught law and penned a 1992 book, A Question of Choice.
From 1991-95, she served on Americans United’s Board of Directors. Weddington aligned with us because she knew that church-state separation and reproductive freedom are bound up together; their fates are intertwined.
In 1990, Weddington addressed an AU conference on church-state separation in Washington, D.C. She spoke eloquently about her experiences litigating Roe but expressed concern for its long-term survival.
“What I expect is that the court will continue to approve various state statutes, so that in essence, we might say there is a constitutional right to privacy, but the state has a compelling state interest to make all kinds of regulations and restrictions. Abortion will be a theoretical right and a practical non-right.”
Weddington, speaking one year after the high court upheld a package of abortion restrictions in Missouri, noted that opposition to abortion is almost always grounded in religious belief, adding, “I do think it’s an important issue, and it is one that is an example of the importance of the separation of religion and state.”
Weddington reiterated this point throughout her career. In a 2003 interview with Time, she remarked, “[S]ome 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.’”
Unfortunately, the situation today is worse than Weddington predicted back in 1990. The Trumpified Supreme Court may later this year issue a decision that fatally weakens Roe or overturns it entirely. And if the court undermines the right to privacy in the process, a host of other rights, including access to birth control and adult sexual freedom, may become vulnerable as well.
Weddington understood that many of our rights – when and whether to have children, who we’ll love and marry, how we will raise our children – rest on the wall of separation between church and state. If the wall collapses, those rights fall with it. Her legacy is one of building up that wall. It’s vital that we continue this work.
As AU President and CEO Rachel Laser put it recently, “Different religious and moral belief systems have different views on abortion. Religious freedom demands the right to an abortion so people can make their own decision according to their own principles. Reproductive freedom is religious freedom!”
Sarah Weddington fought for that principle all her life. In these perilous times, her powerful legacy is an inspiration. Let’s vow to carry it forth.
(Photo: Sarah Weddington speaks at the March for Women’s Lives in Washington, D.C., in 2004. By Patty Mooney via Creative Commons)