On May 2, 2022, a leaked draft opinion from the Supreme Court confirmed that after almost 50 years, the landmark decisions Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey would be overturned. The court’s opinion will not be finalized until it is published, likely within the next two months.
Overturning Roe would completely return the power to individual states to decide whether abortion is legal and what restrictions to impose on it, effectively turning the clock back to 1972 for many women living in conservative states.
In 1992, almost 20 years after Roe was decided and on the cusp of the Casey decision, lawyer Sarah Weddington penned her memoir, A Question of Choice. Weddington was just 27 years old when she argued the famous case in front of the Supreme Court, and her memoir recounts her incredible experiences fighting for women’s rights.
Below, read the first chapter from the 40th anniversary edition of A Question of Choice, in which Weddington remembers her own illegal abortion before Roe was passed.
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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
Keep reading: Download A Question of Choice now.
A Question of Choice
Almost 50 years ago, 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.
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).