I recently finished reading A Question of Choice by Sarah Weddington. Sarah Weddington is one of the two lawyers who originally filed Roe v. Wade, and the woman who argued the case in front of the Supreme Court. Though the effort was certainly not hers entirely, we do owe her a huge debt of gratitude, since legal abortion never would have happened how and as soon as it did without her.
That’s why I picked up this book. A Question of Choice could be considered an autobiography, a detailed, personalized account of the Roe case, or a history of reproductive rights in America from shortly before Roe was filed to the early 90s, when the book was written. The fact that Weddington couldn’t quite make up her mind about what the book was going to be is definitely its greatest weakness.
The good news is that the book is good enough to make the lack of cohesion worth it.
The book starts with Weddington’s account of her own illegal, pre-Roe abortion in Mexico. It’s an anecdote that sets the tone of for the book, even though it admittedly does not seem to be the primary reason behind her drive. I love hearing women tell their stories about abortion. That probably sounds perverse, but I don’t think it is. Basically, I love hearing of women who made their own choices, for their own reasons, came out okay and are unashamed. In our culture, an experience with abortion is one of the ultimate taboos that seems to never be discussed unless on an anonymous basis. Seeing women with the bravery to speak out, despite the social consequences that she has to be fully aware of, warms my heart and makes me proud to be a part of the reproductive rights movement.
Learning what led up to the filing of Roe is interesting because it dispels an awful lot of popular assumptions about the case. At this point, I must embarrassingly admit to my ignorance about the details of Roe. Obviously I know that Roe guaranteed the right to a safe and legal abortion, and that it was won on the grounds of a Constitutional right to privacy. After that my previous set of knowledge dropped off considerably.
One of the biggest potential shocks is that “Jane Roe” actually had very little to do with the case at all. It’s the popular imagination that Roe (as she is referred to throughout the book, though her real name is briefly mentioned) was pregnant, sought an abortion, was denied and then sought out a lawyer. That’s not even remotely true. Weddington, with Linda Coffee (another lawyer) had already begun imagining how they might challenge the abortion laws in court. They were not willing to let women suffer for the untellable number of years it would take to build a national legislative consensus. In fact, they already begun to work out their arguments and simply needed a plaintiff in the case. Having close connections to an underground referral source for safe and illegal abortions, they eventually managed to find a woman who was unable to travel to obtain a safe abortion, and was willing to cooperate in the case. Other than collecting Roe’s basic history and having her sign several official forms, her direct participation in the case all but ended. She didn’t even attend the hearings! The case was also eventually turned into a class action suit, turning it into Roe et al. v Wade.
The book then delves into how the case’s argument was determined and compiled, and how the case made it through the various legal systems. I’m not going to get into many details here, but I promise you that it really is more interesting than it sounds. The aspect that interested me most was the need to argue that a fetus does not have legal status as a person, which would therefore show that a woman’s rights come first. This was integral to the case, and there certainly was a ton of legal precedent to back it up at the time.
I find it interesting because of how things have progressed in recent years. It seems that Weddington and Coffee– completely unintentionally, and perhaps even necessarily– gave anti-choice activists the blueprint to overturn the case. We’ve all heard the stories of laws that seek to grant the fetus legal status as a person, who can be a victim of murder, abuse and even have its mother locked in jail for doing drugs. Everyone knows that this is a direct attempt to undermine abortion laws, but I had no idea that it was a part of Roe itself. Really interesting stuff.
After discussing the arguments and day in court itself, there is a long recap and analysis of the actual Roe decision. What I found to be most interesting were the liberties that the Court took in ruling on matters not even discussed in the Roe case, a highly unusual course of action. Weddigton seems to believe that the Court did this for the sake of clarity, and not having the legal systems tied up with constant challenges for years and years on end. But in effect, what they did was spelled out very clearly in black and white precisely the level to which state and local governments could restrict a woman’s Constitutional right to choose without actually “violating” it. They might as well have written the anti-choice laws themselves!
One of the most stunning revelations– and quite arguably an example of over-extending power– was that the Court’s decision in Roe actually established the “trimester approach” to abortion, where different rules are set for different stages of pregnancy. This approach appeared in no way throughout the case, from either side. But, there it is in the decision. Weddington had purposely argued during the case that there could be no legal difference made among fetuses of different ages. Though she, as many pro-choice individuals are, was personally highly uncomfortable with abortions performed on older fetuses, she recognized that there was no significant legal marker throughout pregnancy that would change a fetus’ status to include legal rights. There was no way to make this differentiation without having her case unravel. She also recognized that, despite her personal thoughts on the issue, she was specifically arguing for the right of women to make choices on their own, regardless of what other members of the public were and were not uncomfortable with. Claiming different rights for different fetuses not only would have undermined the legal argument of the case, it also would have undermined the spirit.
What’s most shocking, I think, is that Justice Blackmun, one of the most pro-choice Supreme Court justices to ever sit on the bench, wrote the decision. And yet, he still took it upon himself to determine (alongside consultation from experts who had nothing to do with the case) the laws that would and would not be appropriate regarding abortions at different stages of pregnancy.
The rest of the book focuses on the aftermath of Roe, and how chipping away at the case began almost immediately. I won’t go into detail about this section, but I will say that I learned a lot. I learned that Reagan was even more of an ass than I thought, even though though it certainly didn’t surprise me– finding out that he owned slaves, used gays for shooting practice and ate kittens for breakfast wouldn’t surprise me, anymore. What did surprise me was to learn that, despite his other shortcomings, President Clinton was quite a strong advocate for choice. I was a kid throughout most of his presidency, so there tend to be some gaps in my knowledge there. But seriously. The man did a lot of good. And he could have done a lot more good if he had had a pro-choice congress to back him up. It really reaffirmed in me what a great difference a strong pro-choice candidate can make– even if he or she is one of the safe, legal and rare variety Of course, Bush has since undone all of the good that Clinton did. But simply reverting to the days of Clinton would be such a vast improvement.
The one other thing I wanted to mention was the resource section at the back of the book. It provides guidelines for action that you can take as a reproductive rights activist. A lot of it I had heard before, but certainly not all, and the section impressed me. I’ll share my absolute favorite tip, because now that I’ve heard of it, I think that everyone should do it: whenever you donate to a political campaign, always include a note with that donation that says you are supporting the candidate because he or she is pro-choice. If you ever receive a solicitation from a politician or organization that is not pro-choice, answer them anyway– with a note explaining that you will not contribute because of their stance on abortion. So simple. And yet, so meaningful.
It’s definitely a book that I recommend to anyone looking for a highly readable primer on the recent history of reproductive rights in America, and to learn more about one of the most important feminists of our lifetime. It’s also a great way to revisit the spirit of Roe and to appreciate what it really means to have choice.