Sarah Weddington, attorney who won Roe v Wade abortion case, dies aged 76

Texan lawyer and Linda Coffee won landmark 1973 case, safeguarding right now under threat from US supreme court

Sarah Weddington, an attorney who argued and won the Roe v Wade supreme court case which established the right to abortion in the US, has died. She was 76.

Susan Hays, a Democratic candidate for Texas agriculture commissioner, announced the news on Twitter on Sunday. The Dallas Morning News confirmed it.

“Sarah Weddington died this morning after a series of health issues,” Hays wrote. “With Linda Coffee, she filed the first case of her legal career, Roe v Wade, fresh out of law school. She was my professor … the best writing instructor I ever had, and a great mentor.

“At 27 she argued Roe to [the supreme court] (a fact that always made me feel like a gross underachiever). Ironically, she worked on the case because law firms would not hire women in the early 70s, leaving her with lots of time for good trouble.”

The court ruled on Roe v Wade in 1973. Nearly 50 years later, under a supreme court packed with hardline conservatives, the right Roe established is under threat in part thanks to a Texas law that drastically restricts access and offers incentives for reporting women to authorities.

In 2017, speaking to the Guardian, Weddington predicted such a turn of events. “If [Neil] Gorsuch’s nomination is approved, will abortion be illegal the next day? No. One new judge won’t necessarily make much difference. But two or three might.”

After steering Gorsuch on to the court, Donald Trump installed Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett. Barrett replaced the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a champion of women’s rights.

Sarah Weddington
Sarah Weddington poses with a signed copy of the Roe v Wade decision in front of the US supreme court in 2005. Photograph: Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty

Weddington found her way to Roe v Wade soon after graduating from the University of Texas. Represented by Weddington and Coffee, Norma McCorvey became the plaintiff known as “Jane Roe” in Roe v Wade. McCorvey became an evangelical Christian and opponent of abortion. She died in 2017. In a posthumous confession, she said anti-abortion groups paid her to take such a stance.

In her Guardian interview, Weddington said arguing the case in federal court “was like going down a street with no street lights. But there was no other way to go and I didn’t have any preconceived notions that I would not win.”

She did win, but the case continued.

“Henry Wade, the district attorney, unwittingly helped us,” she said. “At a press conference, he said, ‘I don’t care what any court says; I am going to continue to prosecute doctors who carry out abortion.’ There was a procedural rule that said if local elected officials continue to prosecute after a federal court had declared a law unconstitutional, there would be a right to appeal to the supreme court.”

Before the court in Washington, Weddington said, “it was impossible to read the justices’ faces. The attorney on the other side started by saying something inappropriate about arguing a case against a beautiful woman. He thought the judges would snicker. But their faces didn’t change a bit.

“I had to argue it twice in the supreme court: in 1971 and again in 1972. On 22 January 1973 I was at the Texas legislature when the phone rang. It was a reporter from the New York Times. ‘Does Miss Weddington have a comment today about Roe v Wade?’ my assistant was asked. ‘Why?’ she said. ‘Should she?’

“It was beginning to be very exciting. Then we got a telegram from the supreme court saying that I had won 7-2 and that they were going to air-mail a copy of the ruling. Nowadays, of course, you’d just go online.

“I was ecstatic, and more than 44 years later we’re still talking about it.”

Weddington later revealed that she had an abortion herself, in 1967. “Just before the anaesthesia hit,” she said, “I thought: ‘I hope no one ever knows about this.’ For a lot of years, that was exactly the way I felt. Now there’s a major push to encourage women to tell their stories so people will realise that it is not a shameful thing. One out of every five women will have an abortion.”

Weddington predicted: “Whatever else I do in my life, the headline on my obituary is always going to be ‘Roe v Wade attorney dies’.”

Weddington when she was special assistant to President Jimmy Carter. Photograph: Bettmann/Bettmann Archive

In fact she achieved much more, as Hays detailed. Weddington was “elected as the first woman from Travis county in the [Texas legislature] in 1972 (along with four other women: Kay Bailey, Chris Miller, Betty Andujar and Senfronia Thompson).

“She was general counsel of the United States Department of Agriculture under [Jimmy] Carter and enjoyed her stint in DC. Federal judicial nominations for Texas were run by her as a high-ranking Texan in the administration.

“A Dallas lawyer she knew sought a bench. She had interviewed with him while at UT law. He’d asked her, ‘What will we tell our wives if we hire you?’ She told him he was wasting their time and hers and walked out of the interview. He did not get the judgeship.

“Ever the proper preacher’s daughter, she would never tell me who the lawyer was. People don’t know that about Sarah. She was such a proper Methodist minister’s daughter. One of the few people I couldn’t cuss in front of.”

Hays also paid tribute to Weddington as a member of a “Great Austin Matriarchy” including the former Texas governor Ann Richards and the columnist Molly Ivins.

Among other tributes, the University of Texas law professor Steve Vladeck said Weddington was “a remarkable woman [who had] a remarkable career and a remarkable life. May her memory be a blessing”.

Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said simply: “Rest in power.”

Weddington indicated she was at peace with being remembered for Roe v Wade.

“I think most women of my generation can recall our feelings about the fight,” she told the Guardian. “It’s like young love. You may not feel exactly the same, but you remember it.”

• This article was updated on 27 December 2021 to include tributes to Sarah Weddington from Steve Vladeck and Sherrilyn Ifill. Reference was also added to Norma McCorvey’s statement shortly before her death, but revealed only afterwards, that she changed her stance on abortion because she had been paid to do so by opposition groups.


Martin Pengelly in New York

The GuardianTramp

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