Does the name Sarah Weddington ring a bell? If not, you’re not alone. I’ve been taking an informal poll, and I’ve received a lot of blank stares. I didn’t know the name, either, until I pulled a dog-eared memoir titled A Question of Choice off the shelf of a dusty used bookstore. Sarah Weddington argued Roe v. Wade. She was twenty-six years old.
A Question of Choice, published in 1992, is her story, a story that doubles as a history of Roe v. Wade and its first twenty-year aftermath, a history Weddington imbues with insider details that bring Roe to life. Who knew, for instance, that Roe took root in the fall of 1969 at a garage sale intended to raise money for an abortion referral project in Austin? Or that Roy Lucas, a lawyer who’d offered to help with Roe, tried to usurp it from Weddington, claiming he should argue the case? Or that Roe was argued before the Supreme Court twice. Or that Weddington wore her hair up for the second argument, a detail that some evidenced as a “‘grand strategy,’” when in fact her husband Ron had “left the shower pull up,” which drenched Weddington as she prepared to bathe. “I wore my hair up because it was wet.” Or that the only restrooms in the lawyers’ lounge off the Supreme Court “were marked ‘Men.’” Or that Weddington wore a “conservative dark blue three-piece [suit] with a high neck and long sleeves,” which she accessorized with “a single strand of pearls, pearl earrings, and black heels.” Or that Sarah Weddington was—and this bears repeating—twenty-six years old when she approached the lectern to give her argument. “Before that moment I had been extremely nervous. Once I was in motion and into the argument, I was fine.”
Standing before the Supreme Court on December 13, 1971, in her suit and heels and wet hair, Sarah Weddington was making history. She subsequently draws on the trial transcripts, as well as on memory and reflection, to recreate that history in a narrative rich with dialogue, description, and scene. For example, after she delivers her own complex argument that hinges on privacy and personhood, Jay Floyd, representing Texas, opened his argument with the words, “‘It’s an old joke, but when a man argues against two beautiful ladies like this, they’re going to have the last word.’” Nobody laughed. When he went on to argue that a woman “‘makes her choice prior to the time she becomes pregnant’” a justice retorted, “‘maybe she makes her choice when she decides to live in Texas!’”
Born in 1945 in Abilene, Texas, Sarah Weddington grew up a preacher’s daughter. She credits singing in the church choir and leading youth groups with bolstering an innate confidence that she could and would succeed. When a high school gym teacher explained that girls could not run full court in basketball because they had to “preserve their reproductive capacity,” which was “their meal ticket,” Weddington “took a silent vow that I would have a meal ticket other than reproductive capacity.” In college, when a dean told her she could not become a lawyer because no woman from their college “had ever gone to law school,” that it would be “too strenuous for [her],” Weddington decided she was going. It was during her third year of law school, facing an unplanned pregnancy with Ron Weddington, that she herself endured an illegal abortion, where she had to “put my life, my future, in the hands of strangers.”
Before reading A Question of Choice, I hadn’t realized how little I knew about Roe and the history of abortion in this country, including that abortion laws were first passed in 1828 to protect women from infection in a time when infection often led to death. Nor had I considered my own reproductive story—its twists and turns, its joys and heartbreaks—a worthy story.
Early in A Question of Choice Weddington states, “There are moments in your life—‘aha’ moments—when, for whatever reason, you suddenly see the same facts in a different light.” One of Weddington’s aha moments came in the 1960s when she was denied a credit card without her husband’s signature even though she was a lawyer and earned more than half their income.
One of my aha moments came while reading A Question of Choice when I realized how important our personal reproductive stories are to our collective history as women, a history inextricably bound with Roe. These stories, so often hushed, do not exist in a vacuum. They contain deeper truths about what it means to be female in America during our lifetime.
Why is A Question of Choice important to your writing, your craft, your life? Whether you were born before Roe, came of age during Roe, or were born after Roe, the story of Roe v. Wade—which continues to unfold—provides us with a cultural and historical lens through which to view our fear, our rage, our silence, our shame, all of which take a toll on our writing, our lives. By realizing the history of Roe v. Wade, we more fully realize ourselves.
Toward the end of A Question of Choice Weddington writes, “Frances Kissling of Catholics for Free Choice says that if people could sit in on counseling sessions and listen to women tell their stories, the abortion issue would soon be behind us.”
Stories are that powerful. They raise awareness, open hearts, change lives.
In response to Sarah Weddington’s A Question of Choice, I have created an online writing class called Writing Our Reproductive Stories. This class will focus on craft and on consciousness, on our personal stories and on the cultural context that shapes our experience. We will learn to give artistic expression to our stories, which may or may not include abortion. If you feel called to write your reproductive story, I would love to work with you in this intimate class, which promises truth, beauty, and transformation. Click here for details.
In the meantime, get your hands on a copy of A Question of Choice and enjoy some aha moments that will not only illuminate Roe and introduce you to Sarah Weddington, but will also provide you with insight into your own unique and significant reproductive story.
Write your story!