Roe’s Legacy Is More than Reproductive Rights

AAUW President Marjorie Bell Chambers and Sarah Weddington read the AAUW research report, But We Will Persist, 1979. Weddington spoke at the 1979 AAUW convention in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

January 27, 2015

The U.S. Supreme Court case that legalized abortion in this country, Roe v. Wade is the pivotal reproductive rights case of the last century and a precious victory for women’s equality under the law. For me, though, Roe is more than legal precedent. It is a testament to the power young women can harness.

In 1972, the year the Supreme Court heard arguments in Roe v. Wade, many states still criminalized abortion. Indeed, legal access to birth control was new — it had been less than a decade since the Supreme Court overturned Connecticut’s law banning the use of contraception. You might reasonably assume that Jane Roe and her advocates would have chosen a well-known, experienced lawyer with multiple Supreme Court arguments under his — and yes, probably a “his” — belt. You’d be wrong.

Sarah Weddington photographed in 1978, five years after the Roe v. Wade decision

Sarah Weddington photographed in 1978, five years after the Roe v. Wade decision

Attorney Sarah Weddington was 26 years old when she appeared before the Supreme Court to argue on Jane Roe’s behalf. She was a freshly minted lawyer without significant legal experience. At the time, few women attorneys were practicing at all, much less practicing before the nation’s highest court. Weddington’s age made her the youngest Supreme Court advocate in history. The fact that she argued — and won — the groundbreaking Roe v. Wade case is just the climax of an already extraordinary story.

When I talk with women who championed Roe 40 years ago, they’re frustrated that their daughters and granddaughters are still fighting battles they believed they’d won in 1973, frustrated that contraceptive care and abortion access are still issues today. And I share their frustrations. But anti-choice backlash can’t diminish Weddington’s personal legacy. She proved the power, influence, and capability of young advocates on a national stage. Ensuring reproductive justice will take many more victories, and Weddington showed us we can win.

Although I’ve only been an attorney for a few years, I’m older now than Weddington was in 1972. What I celebrate on Roe’s anniversary, what inspires me about Roe’s history, is the fact that young women like me led the movement to win reproductive justice. I remember Weddington’s work and resolve to follow in her footsteps.

By:   |   January 27, 2015


  1. Lajoy John says:

    Very informative article Ms. Lam, I am doing research on the 14th Amendment and Intermediate Scrutiny and found this article useful for my historical notes. It was a pleasure meeting you through our branch in Huntsville, AL and thanks for all you do for Legal Advocacy across the nation.

  2. Deborah Thiel says:

    Thanks for this bit of history! It is more important than ever for women to unite and assure morality and sexual decision making remain a matter of self-reflection and self-determination. No human has the right to control women’s bodies or force unwanted reproduction.

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