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 and a former member of Americans United’s Board of Trustees, died Dec. 26.
Although she was best known for arguing the 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 AU 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 a 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.’”
The right to legal abortion is hanging by a thread. The Supreme Court may later this year issue a decision that fatally weakens Roe or overturns it entirely.
On its “Wall of Separation” blog, AU observed, “Weddington understood that many of our rights – when and whether to have children, whom 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.”