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

Sarah Weddington, a lawyer who pleaded and won the Roe v Wade Supreme Court that established the right to abortion in the US, has died aged 76.

Susan Hays, a Democratic nominee for Texas Agriculture Commissioner, announced the news on Twitter on Sunday and the Dallas Morning News confirmed the.

“Sarah Weddington passed away this morning after a series of health problems,” Hays wrote. “To 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’ve ever had, and a great mentor.

“At 27, she pleaded with Roe to” [the supreme court] (a fact that always made me feel like a gross underachiever). Ironically, she worked on the case because, in the early 1970s, law firms wouldn’t hire women, leaving her a lot of time for good problems.”

The court ruled on Roe v Wade in 1973. Nearly 50 years later, the justice it established is under threat from a Supreme Court filled with hard-line conservatives, thanks in part to a Texas law that drastically limits access and provides incentives to report women to authorities.

In 2017, in a conversation with the Guardian, Weddington predicted such a turn. “If [Neil] Gorsuch Appointment Approved, Will Next Day Abortion Be Illegal? New. One new judge won’t necessarily make much of a difference. But maybe two or three.”

After sending Gorsuch to court — and a seat vacated by Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell when Barack Obama was president — Donald Trump installed Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Comey Barrett. Barrett replaced the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a champion of women’s rights.

Sarah Weddington poses with a signed copy of the 2005 Roe v Wade decision before the US Supreme Court. Photo: Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty

Weddington found her way to Roe v Wade shortly after graduating from law school at 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 her Guardian interview, Weddington discussed the case’s argument in federal court. “I was very nervous,” she said. “It was like walking down a street with no street lights. But there was no other way to go and I had no preconceptions that I wouldn’t win.”

She won, but the case went ahead.

“Henry Wade, the District Attorney, has unwittingly helped us,” she said. “In a press conference he said, ‘I don’t care what a court says; I will continue to prosecute doctors who commit abortions.’ There was a procedural rule that said if local elected officials continue to prosecute after a federal court declared a law unconstitutional, there would be a right to appeal to the Supreme Court.

In a Washington court, Weddington said, “It was impossible to read the judges’ faces. The lawyer on the other end started by saying something inappropriate about a case against a beautiful woman. He thought the judges would chuckle. But their faces didn’t change.

“I had to plead for it twice in the Supreme Court: in 1971 and again in 1972. On January 22, 1973, I was in the Texas legislature when the phone rang. It was a reporter for the New York Times. “Does Miss Weddington have a comment today about Roe v Wade?” my assistant was asked. ‘Why?’ she said. “Would she?”

“It started to get very exciting. Then we got a telegram from the Supreme Court saying that I had won 7-2 and that they were going to send a copy of the ruling. These days, of course, you just go online.

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

Weddington later revealed that she had an abortion herself, in 1967. “Just before the anesthetic kicked in,” she said, “I thought, ‘I hope no one ever knows about this.’ For years that was exactly how I felt. Now there is a lot of pressure to encourage women to tell their story so that people will realize there is no shame in it. One in five women will have an abortion.”

Weddington predicted, “No matter what I do in my life, the headline on my obituary will always be ‘Roe v Wade attorney dies’.”

In fact she achieved much more, like Hays detailed in her tweets on Sunday. Those career doors that were closed to her led her to run for office and be elected as the first Travis County woman in the United States. [Texas legislature] in 1972 (along with four other women elected to the House: Kay Bailey, Chris Miller, Betty Andujar and Senfronia Thompson).

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

Weddington when she was Special Assistant to President Jimmy Carter. Photo: Bettmann/Bettmann archive

“A Dallas attorney she knew was looking for a bank. She had interviewed him during her law studies at UT. He had asked her, “What shall we say to our wives if we hire you?” She told him he was wasting their time and hers and walked out of the interview. He didn’t get the judgement.

‘She was once the real preacher’s daughter, she would never tell me who the lawyer was. People don’t know that about Sarah. She was such an the daughter of a real Methodist preacher. One of the few people I couldn’t swear in front of.’

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

In her Guardian interview, Weddington indicated that she was at peace with being remembered for Roe v Wade. “I think most women of my generation can remember our feelings about the fight,” she said. “It’s like young love. You may not feel exactly the same, but you do remember.”