A Question of Choice

A Question of Choice

by Sarah Weddington, Cecile Richards

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A memoir filled with “valuable, passionate insights” from the lawyer who argued the landmark Roe v. Wade case to the Supreme Court (Kirkus Reviews).
More than 40 years ago, the highest court in the land handed down a decision that would forever alter the lives of women throughout the United States. Roe v. Wade became the seminal lawsuit that gave American women the legal right to abortion.
Weddington, just 27 years old in 1973, became a key figure in the reproductive rights movement when she took on the case. Here she recounts her remarkable story, from her personal experience with abortion and the workforce discrimination she faced in her early career to the judicial proceedings and long journey she has undertaken in fighting for women’s rights since.
As divisive as ever, the famous decision is continually threatened by organized pro-life groups. Weddington compels “those who are willing to share the responsibility of protecting choice,” to follow her plan of action in supporting the legal rights of women. A Question of Choice is an “eloquent reminder of what Roe truly means—that our most private decisions can be made behind the closed doors of our homes, with our families, and in private conversations with our hearts” (Former President Bill Clinton).

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781558618138
Publisher: Feminist Press at CUNY, The
Publication date: 03/08/2013
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 582,402
File size: 4 MB

About the Author

Sarah Weddington is an attorney and lecturer from Austin Texas. She became a key figure in the reproductive rights movement when at the age of twenty-seven she successfully argued Roe v. Wade, the landmark court case that gave American women the right to abortion. She has served in the Texas house of representatives, and was a White House advisor to President Jimmy Carter. Weddington travels the country, lecturing on leadership and women's issues.

Read an Excerpt



Three scenes summarize my life. Picture those the public knows: First, a triumphant, young woman, five years out of law school, celebrating the victory of a Supreme Court case she has won, Roe v. Wade, which overturns the Texas anti-abortion statutes and makes abortion legal throughout the United States. Second, a worried, mature woman, four decades later, writing and speaking with every ounce of energy to prevent what she hoped and believed American women would never again know: the horrors of a time when abortion was illegal.

This book tells the story of those scenes and of the years that surround them. It is the story of Roe v. Wade, which has been called one of the most significant Supreme Court cases of this century. It was won by the cumulative efforts of many, but the spearhead of the effort that legalized abortion in the nation began in Austin, Texas. The final outcome of the story of legal abortion in America will be written in the future, perhaps by one who has read this book.

But there is also a third scene for me, one I have in common with millions of women: a scared graduate student in 1967 who traveled to a dirty, dusty Mexican border town to have an abortion, fleeing the law that made abortion illegal in Texas.

MY MOUTH GOES DRY as I put myself back in those days in Austin when my period was late. I was in my third year of law school, going to school full-time and supporting myself by working several jobs. I was seriously dating Ron Weddington, who was finishing his undergraduate degree after returning from the army; he was planning to start law school the following summer. I had been celibate until our relationship progressed to the point that we were talking about getting married.

Each day I kept hurrying to the women's lounge in the law school between classes, hoping to find that something had happened; each day I was disappointed. I had to fight to maintain my routine, to work on my class assignments and to complete the demands of my jobs. I had to fight to keep my mind from being incapacitated by the questions that haunted me: What if I were pregnant? What would I do if I were? I had law school to finish and couldn't do that unless I was working. My parents were supporting two other children in college on a minimal income. I was not emotionally ready to commit to marriage. Even if we married, Ron had years of schooling ahead and I needed to work and shoulder our support. My parents would be disappointed in me. What would people who knew me think?

The only person who knew my dilemma was Ron. There were many reasons we were together. We had similar backgrounds; each of us spent our early years in Abilene, a flat, dry Texas town, and longed to be part of a wider world and experience more than the usual events in West Texas. I had led a very "proper" life, but Ron had seen more of the world. I enjoyed talking to him about my studies, his travels and military service, and politics. I loved his sense of humor and his eagerness to explore the world. It also pleased me that he was taller and smarter than I and that we had both been student leaders in high school. He had few stereotyped notions about appropriate roles for women; he did not think it at all strange that I, a woman, would want a career in law.

Ron went through those anxious days with me. He had already made it clear that he did not want children. I had no strong feelings either way and had told him that if we got married, whatever he wanted was fine with me. We began to go over the possibilities. Abortion was one, but we were worried about the risks of an illegal procedure. Ron said that he would help me, whatever I decided to do, and that the final decision was mine to make.

When I was in high school in Vernon, near Wichita Falls, Texas, and the Oklahoma border, I remembered there was a clinic near downtown where a doctor performed illegal abortions. The more adventurous teenagers would drive by late at night to check the license plates of cars in the area; they were from Oklahoma, Arkansas, and other nearby states. I remembered news stories from 1962 about Sherri Finkbine, a television personality and young mother of four in Scottsdale, Arizona, who had taken thalidomide while she was pregnant. When it was announced that the drug could cause mutations of the fetus — it might be born without arms or legs, for instance — she defied an Arizona court by traveling to Sweden to abort her severely deformed fetus. I thought what she had to go through was awful. Ron had heard stories of women who had had abortions, but abortion was something I had never talked about with friends or family.

If we decided on abortion, the next problem was: Where to go? There were no ads in phone books or newspapers; this was all undercover. You had to find someone who knew a name, a place — and I refused to tell anyone my situation. Fortunately, Ron was not as humiliated about this as I. He offered to make some calls and talk to a few acquaintances.

I made an appointment with a gynecologist under a false name; by the time I learned the test was positive, I knew I wanted an abortion. Ron had a friend who knew about a doctor in Piedras Negras, a Mexican town across from the border town of Eagle Pass, Texas; from its center to that of Piedras Negras was 2.6 miles. The doctor had some medical experience in the United States, spoke excellent English, and performed abortions. Abortion was illegal in Mexico, but the woman Ron spoke to told him abortions were done in many places; she assumed the doctors paid off the police to keep things quiet. She said several women she knew had been to this doctor, and that everything had turned out fine. He charged $400 — cash only. My entire savings got us nearly there, and Ron made up the rest. He called for an appointment, made the necessary arrangements, and planned a weekend away. He obtained a powerful painkiller from his best friend who was a doctor's son, and the name of someone who might help if I ended up in medical trouble.

We left Austin early on a Friday morning, drove to Eagle Pass, checked into a motel, and went across the border to the meeting place. I was scared of the unknown, but mercifully I had been spared the horror stories I was later to hear from many women. In my mind's eye, I can still see Ron and me following a man in brown pants and a white guayabera shirt down dirt alleys to a small, white building, two young Americans trying unsuccessfully to blend into the background.

I was grateful that the inside of the building was clean. I could not read what appeared to be a medical diploma on the wall, but it made me feel better. Besides the staff, we were the only ones there. Soon a nurse motioned for me to come through a door. Ron squeezed my hand, and I was on my way to put my life, my future, in the hands of strangers.

I was one of the lucky ones. The doctor was pleasant and seemed competent; this made me feel more at ease about being there. He explained the D&C (dilation and curettage) procedure, then motioned to the nurse and anesthesiologist to begin. I did exactly as I was told; when I felt the anesthesia taking effect, my last thoughts were: I hope I don't die, and I pray that no one ever finds out about this.

My first memory afterward is of waking up in our motel room with Ron by my side. It was the one time he had to play nurse for me. He told me that the doctor had reported to him after my surgery that everything had gone smoothly; I had walked out of the clinic and we had driven back across the border without incident. I was woozy but felt no more than the cramps the doctor had told me to expect. Ron checked; I didn't have a fever. I was filled with gratitude for that doctor and his assistants. Ron and I returned to Austin and plunged back into our usual routines. But the memories have always remained, sharp and clear.

NOW I KNOW THERE were countless others living out their own private scenes when abortion was illegal. Some of them were not as lucky as I; they ended up in awful places, operated on by people who had no medical skills. Before abortion became legal in California in 1967, the county hospital in Los Angeles had a ward called the IOB (infected obstetrics) ward. It had about sixty beds for women suffering the results of botched abortions, and sometimes abortions they had performed themselves. Doctor and nurses who worked at public hospitals in the days when abortion was illegal remember women who died in their arms. Once, after I gave a speech in Dallas, a nurse told me about her best friend, who bled to death after her womb was perforated during an abortion. Another told me about a licensed vocational nurse who had five children and could not face having another one, who died from an infection resulting from an illegal abortion. From mid-1970 through 1972, nearly 350,000 women left their own states to obtain legal abortions in New York, one of the few states where abortion was then legal and available to nonresidents.

Increasing numbers of women have come up to tell me their own stories or those of people they love. I remember one woman who had learned of her mother's abortion; afraid that Roe would not survive the political onslaught of the 1990s, her mother had wanted her to know how terrible it would be if we ever went back to the days when abortion was illegal. Another woman told me about her grandmother, the sole support of five children, who self-induced an abortion when she found herself pregnant soon after her husband had deserted the family.

For me and the countless women who put their lives at risk to control their own destinies, the world changed in 1973 when Roe v. Wade became the law of the land. I hear it every day as I travel and speak. After a speech to doctors' spouses in Chicago, a woman in the audience told me of desperately wanting a child, of getting pregnant and then discovering the fetus was fatally deformed. She wanted me to know how much she appreciated the fact that she had been able to have a legal abortion so that she and her husband could begin again. In Jacksonville, Florida, a woman proudly showed me that she was pregnant. She said she had considered an abortion but had decided against it; she felt good about her choice and the fact that it was her decision to make. College students have told me how lucky they feel to be maturing at a time when abortion is legal. Roe v. Wade made the country a better place for women.

But I am getting ahead of myself. Let's return to the beginning of the story, to where and when Roe v. Wade began: Austin, Texas, in the 1960s.


Yearning for More Choices for Women

Indira Gandhi is reported to have said, "I have felt like a bird born in too small a cage." That is just how many of us women born in the 1940s felt in the 1960s. We were born and grew up at a time when social and legal restrictions forced women into narrower roles than we longed to occupy. We were told "Women don't," "You can't," "That would be too strenuous for you."

Texans have always been an independent breed, and in the sixties and seventies many women in Texas began to reveal their own streak of independence. Ours is a state now known as one where men are men, and women are elected officials. When I travel, people ask me how Texas has produced such strong women as Governor Ann Richards, former Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, press secretary Liz Carpenter who served former First Lady Lady Bird Johnson, writer Molly Ivins, State Senator Wendy Davis, and President of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, (referred to as Planned Parenthood throughout this book) Cecile Richards. I tell them that Texas is a place where the basis for acceptance is never who your parents are or where you come from. Instead what is important is a frontier ethic of individual worth and accomplishment. Women demonstrating those qualities are accepted. I sometimes use Molly Ivins's line that the chauvinism in Texas was so powerful that only strong women survived it. It is said we Texas women love riding horses because the only time we felt in control as youngsters was when we rode. Then we were in control of a huge animal of power and grace, and were free to explore the boundless acres spread out beneath the sky. Everywhere else, others sought to control us. When I was young I rode on the plains of West Texas, the land stretching to the far horizon with not another soul in sight. I wondered what lay beyond the world my eyes could see, the world in which I had grown up.

Texas did not become known for its women with can-do attitudes overnight. It took years of struggle and effort. There were many in the 1960s like me who were searching for new identities and who fought to push back the bars of their own personal cages.

My first quest for that wider world was in moving to Austin when I was nineteen. It became home in January 1965, when I arrived with my twelve-year-old brother, John, my 1945 two-tone-green Pontiac piled high with our clothes and household items. John and I had arrived in an oasis of beauty and liberal thought in an otherwise largely dry and dusty conservative state. I've since heard Austin called the "blue dot" in a red state.

We had come to work for the Texas legislature during its spring session. When the session ended, John would return home to the family and school; I was hoping to stay and enter the University of Texas law school.

I was born in Abilene and grew up in various West Texas towns — Wylie, Munday, Canyon, and Vernon, places so small many Texans have never heard of them. My father was a Methodist minister. I was the traditional preacher's daughter: I sang in the church choir, played the church organ and piano, gave Sunday devotionals, and was a youth leader in the church community. The praise I got from church members and friends of my parents for those performances helped build in me a solid sense of confidence in my abilities to accomplish whatever I set out to do. However, I was nontraditional in that I did not envision marriage and children as my primary future, as my parents and friends knew.

Years ago I heard the following saying: "To be a leader, you must be comfortable feeling different." As a preacher's kid I always felt different; I was an independent thinker. I was not invited to participate in many of the activities of my peers. When I look back, it seems just as well. I grew up being an officer in the Methodist Youth Fellowship, the drum major (not a majorette) of the Canyon Junior High School Band, and president of the Future Homemakers of America of Canyon High School in my sophomore year.

At McMurry College, now McMurry University, a small Methodist liberal arts school in Abilene, I continued to be a leader. I was active in a social organization, participated in productions of the drama department, and was elected secretary of the student body. I followed a traditional route, graduating with secondary-education teaching credentials for English and speech, but I harbored the dream of going to law school. During my senior year, I went to talk about this with the dean, who told me I should not even think of it. His son was in law school and was finding it very difficult. No woman from McMurry had ever gone to law school. He said it would be too strenuous for me. That was when I decided I was going.

I had already begun to chafe under some of the other restrictions I faced growing up in West Texas. While I was growing up, women's basketball teams were composed of ten players, five on each half of the court. The players on one side of the court would work their way, two dribbles at a time, to the center of the court, where they would pass the ball to teammates three inches away, who would head for the basket two dribbles at a time. I could never understand why we could not run full court, or why it was considered travelling, a technical violation, if we failed to pass the ball after two dribbles. When I persisted, I was told that running full court would be too strenuous for women. A high school physical education instructor told us, "Young women must preserve their reproductive capacity; after all, it is their meal ticket." I took a silent vow that I would have a meal ticket other than my reproductive capacity.

One day during an education class at McMurry, we were discussing the custom that if a woman teacher became pregnant she would quit, and if she did not she would be fired. My teacher wanted the class to consider whether a pregnant teacher had a moral responsibility to tell the principal as soon as she knew she was pregnant, or whether she could wait until the principal figured it out. I saw no reason why she should have to quit at all.

On another occasion at McMurray I led a small rebellion against school rules that prevented student government from sponsoring dances, even when chaperoned on campus. The administration finally gave in and allowed a "social function" with music; we students gave in and did not call it a "dance."


Excerpted from "A Question of Choice"
by .
Copyright © 2013 Sarah Richards.
Excerpted by permission of Feminist Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Table of Contents
Introduction to the 40th Anniversary edition
2. A Young Woman’s Search for Choices
3. The Roots of Roe v. Wade
4. An Invitation to Washington
5. Preparing The Argument
6. A Great Day In Court
7. Victory
8. Storm Clouds Gathering
9. Rising Opposition to Roe
10. Words For Choice
11. A Plan For Action
12. beyond Casey
13. Joy And Sorrow
Acknowledgements And Additional Information

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