• History
  • Courts

Roe v. Wade Lawyer ‘Amazed’ Americans Still Fighting Over Abortion

10 minute read

It was 45 years ago Monday — on Jan. 22, 1973 — that the U.S. Supreme Court announced its 7-2 decision in Roe v. Wade: that a woman’s constitutional right to privacy extended to decisions about whether to terminate a pregnancy, thus essentially declaring that laws prohibiting abortion were unconstitutional.

But, rather than closing the book on the issue, the ruling opened a Pandora’s box.

And it remains open to this day. On Thursday, the Trump administration revealed its plan to create a federal office that would protect medical providers who refuse to participate in abortion procedures. The next day, the White House declared the Roe anniversary to be National Sanctity of Human Life Day, and President Trump became the first sitting president to address the March for Life rally, the major anti-abortion gathering that’s been held annually since the first anniversary of Roe. And on Saturday, reproductive rights are sure to be a topic of discussion among the many who are marching nationwide in an encore of last year’s Women’s March.

One person with a unique perspective on the aftermath of Roe is lawyer Sarah Weddington, 72, of Austin. When she was just 26, in what would be one of several milestones in her legal career, she argued on behalf of “Jane Roe” (later revealed to be Norma McCorvey) in the famous suit. TIME has caught up with Weddington to mark the Roe anniversary before, a tradition of sorts that continued this week. Below is an edited transcript of that conversation.

TIME: This week, President Trump made headlines with announcements and appearances in support of the “anti” side in the fight over abortion in the U.S. What does it mean that the President is taking such a stance, 45 years after the Supreme Court addressed the issue?

WEDDINGTON: It’s not anything we didn’t expect, and what it really means I don’t know. Most of us have known that he’s [Trump’s] very anti-abortion, that his Attorney General is very anti-abortion, his Vice President is very anti-abortion, so it just means we’re going to have to fight harder. It’s a help in the sense that it puts a flag for people who care about the difficult situation we’re in. Now they cannot make abortion illegal, given Roe v. Wade, but if they had more justices willing to try to overturn Roe v. Wade, then that would become an even bigger problem. Right now they don’t have enough justices to do that, and thank goodness Ruth Bader Ginsburg does her exercises.

I look back at the time [around] Roe v. Wade, and you had Barry Goldwater who was very Republican but very pro-choice. Then you had Ford as president and his wife Betty Ford, who was very pro-choice. So I guess what’s really changed is that now you’ve got so many more Republicans who are very anti-choice, whereas 40 years ago, you had a lot of Republicans who were very pro-choice.

Today, abortion rates in the U.S. are at their lowest since the Roe v. Wade ruling. How do you see that development?

At the time of Roe v. Wade, when we started it, the health center at the University of Texas did not provide any counseling about contraception or about contraceptives, so I do think you’ve got a lot more people trying to prevent pregnancy [today], and so you don’t have as many abortions as you did at a time when contraception was very hard to have access to.

[And] since they can’t make abortion illegal right now, you’ll see the center of litigation in recent years has been all these measures passed in various states trying to make abortion unavailable. Some of that has been measures to say that no place can perform abortion unless they have hallways wide enough for two gurneys to go down the aisle, and then they’ll say, “Oh, we do this for women’s protection, so it will be safer for women.” I don’t think it has anything to do with their concern about women. I think it’s all their concern about how can they keep abortion from being available.

How did the spirit of the women’s movement, in the years leading up to Roe, factor into your decision to take on this case?

Not directly. That was a time, particularly here in Austin, when there were a lot of women who were very involved in various protests movements. Once a group of students, mostly grad students in sciences, found out that the University of Texas’s health center didn’t provide contraception or contraceptive information, they decided they would be volunteers to give women more information. So a couple of them went to New York to go get the book Our Bodies, Ourselves that was printed in New York and Boston. They used it as the basis for some of the information they were sharing.

Then the women would come and say, “But I’m already pregnant. I don’t want to go through this. Where can I get an abortion?” So [the volunteers] started going through the research on where could women go for abortions, and at that point California was legal. There was a flight on American Airlines every Thursday. Usually about ten women would be on that plane going to California for abortions. But you had to have money for the plane, you had to have money for the procedure, and so there was a need for money to help women who didn’t have enough themselves. We used to raise money through garage sales.

You told TIME in 2003 that the ‘70s were a really great time for activist women and that young women haven’t faced the same resistance today that women had back then —

I still feel strongly that it was partially when women were told “women can’t, women shouldn’t, women don’t,” a lot of women thought, “You just watch.”

I said to the dean of the little college I went to that I wanted to go to law school, and he said, “You can’t do that. No woman from this college has ever gone to law school. It would be too tough.” When I went, I think there were five women in my beginning class. Some of the professors wouldn’t let women into a class because that would be wasting time and effort on someone who would never really use the education. Another wouldn’t let women ask questions. They could only ask questions one day a semester. That’s changed dramatically now. Last year, there were more women in law school than men.

But do you still feel that way today, in light of the Women’s March, the #MeToo movement and the unprecedented surge of first-time female candidates?

There was an article talking about various things where you’ll have one group that says, “Well, you can’t use the term ‘Women’s March’ here, we have the rights to use that,” and other people are saying that doesn’t make any sense at all. It just makes me realize that there have always been tensions within the women’s movement. And there are still going to be tensions. We still have a long way to go, but I think the path is in the right direction.

So do you think #MeToo and these other women’s movements will be lasting and bring real change?

I do.

Norma McCorvey was very public about her change of heart about abortion later in life. How did you feel about her petitioning the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade in 2005?

Clearly I wish she hadn’t, but I’m not going to be critical of her for what she did. I’m certainly glad the Supreme Court did not agree to take the case where she was trying to overturn Roe v. Wade.

She was a changeable person. The problem I had was trying to tell when she was telling the truth and when she wasn’t. For example, at one point she did an interview, and the reporter said to her, “How did you get pregnant?” and she said, “I was working for a sleazy carnival one night in rural Georgia, and I was walking back to the sleazy motel where I was staying, and three men—a black, a white, and possibly a Hispanic—had brutally raped me.” Frankly I had always had concerns about that, because I don’t think those three people would be together in rural Georgia in 1969. [In 1987, when a] very important black interviewer on TV said, “What about the rape?” She said, “I lied.” She took after the Trump method of truthfulness, which was say whatever you want to.

Did you worry about whether that would affect how people in the future would see the case?

I was very careful in drafting the materials that were filed with the court to be sure I only put in things I was sure were accurate.

Then why was she picked to be the plaintiff?

First, she was pregnant, and the case was a class action, not just for her but on behalf of all women, who will or might become pregnant and want the choice of abortion. Second, she had already had a child that her mother took away from her on the basis that she was unfit to raise the child. So the main things we were alleging were she was pregnant, she didn’t want to be, and that she was not in a position to really raise a child. And she felt very willing—as far we could tell—to be the plaintiff in the case, especially when we explained that we were not requiring any money from her and that she could be anonymous. And so we never made her name public. She decided to do that at some later time.

How does this anniversary feel compared to past landmark anniversaries?

When I started the case, the research in 1969, if anybody had said, ‘You will still be talking about this in 45 years,’ I would not have believed that. And so what I’m most amazed at is how long the issue has still been at the center of a lot of political conversations, because if I look back at the case that dealt with contraception decided in 1965, Griswold v. Connecticut, my memory is it took a few years for people to come to a general agreement that government wasn’t going to get to decide whether they could use birth control. [I thought] it would be some years before people sort of came to a common agreement that it was not the government’s business to decide women’s reproductive freedom. I’ve been surprised at how long it has really taken.

I don’t know how long it will take, but at some point, I’m not going to be willing to keep talking to anyone who asks me to do an interview. There’s a point at which you just get tired of that. It takes up a lot of my time, which, of course, is always pro bono. I did the case for free. At some point I am just tired of doing it, but I think the issue is so important. Soon, a younger generation, younger women and men in law school, are going to have to take on that responsibility.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Write to Olivia B. Waxman at olivia.waxman@time.com