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A Question of Choice

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Few women in their 20s and 30s appreciate what life was like for women before the milestone 1973 Roe v Wade case. Pregnant women were fired from their jobs if they did not resign. Women could not get credit cards without their husband's signatures - even if the woman was the breadwinner. In some high schools, running full court during a basketball game was considered "too strenuous" for women, who were told to pass the ball after two dribbles and slowly make their way to the basket.

In A Question of Choice, Sarah Weddington documents those frustrations she experienced as a young woman in Texas and her determination to fight for equal rights. She takes us behind the scenes of Roe v Wade, the landmark Supreme Court case she argued and won at 27- her first contested case - to provide reproductive rights for women across the country.

Although A Question of Choice was first published in 1992, Weddington and women's groups have been aggressively promoting the book in the run-up to the November presidential elections, which some fear could result in a more anti-choice Supreme Court and the overturning of Roe if Bush is reelected.

A Question of Choice spans the build-up and preparation for Roe v Wade - endless research and moot courts based on the "right of privacy" defense - through to erosion of the rights Roe protected. It tells the remarkable story of how Weddington won the Supreme Court battle with the help of her husband and a motley group of activists, doctors, nurses and religious leaders.

No matter which side of the contentious debate you are on, A Question of Choice is a fascinating story about the legal battle over abortion and of the men and women who worked on the case - all for free.

Weddington and her now ex-husband Ron, lived a bohemian lifestyle while preparing for Roe, at one point leaving their home in Texas to sleep on the floor of the offices of the Constitutional Law Institute in New York where they prepared their Supreme Court brief.

Roe started because some of Weddington's friends ran an abortion referral service in Austin and were worried that they could be prosecuted for helping women find doctors willing to perform abortions, which were illegal in Texas. So 25-year-old Weddington began researching - could her friends be held accountable? She couldn't find the answer, but as her research progressed, so did interest in her work. The women running the referral service, frustrated with their inability to win rights through the "old boys" Texas legislature and worried that they could be prosecuted, decided to try the case before the federal courts.

Weddington is an accomplished writer and deftly weaves intricacies of the lawsuit with harrowing accounts of her personal life and the stories of desperate women who braved back-alley clinics for abortions. Some of the women bled to death from botched procedures. Others were deformed. Shortly before they were married, Ron and Sarah Weddington traveled to Mexico for an abortion - an experience that haunted the lawyer and inspired her to fight so other women would not have to face the fear of an illegal operation.

People increasingly became interested in Weddington's lawsuit and many stopped by her office at the University of Texas law school in "Boy's Town," where the young professors had their offices. All of the professors were male, hence the name. She writes that she was chosen to argue Roe because the group wanted a female lawyer and Weddington was the only one they knew.

"I eventually warmed to the lawsuit idea, but I thought I was an unlikely person - and not the right person - to tackle it," she writes. "In the end, however, it seemed I was the best free legal help available, and there were reasons I was inclined to accept the challenge. In private, Ron and I discussed the possibility of helping others avoid what we had gone through and preventing any more of the sorts of horror stories we had heard from project volunteers."

Weddington and her supporters were particularly heartened by Griswold v Connecticut, the 1965 Supreme Court case which challenged a Connecticut law which made birth control illegal. Estelle Griswold, the executive director of Planned Parenthood Connecticut, had been arrested after giving contraceptives to a married couple. She was fined $100, appealed and won before the Supreme Court. The law was declared unconstitutional and the court's opinion focused on the "right of privacy" as being upheld by the Constitution. Weddington relied heavily on that opinion in her oral arguments to the Supreme Court.

A Question of Choice also documents Weddington's many other accomplishments: namely, her election at 26 to the Texas legislature and her work in Washington recruiting women for leadership positions under President Jimmy Carter. First and foremost, A Question of Choice is the story of a brave and remarkable woman.

Weddington's elation over her victory in assuring women's access to legal abortions was short-lived and she writes despairingly about the restrictions states have since imposed on Roe, conditions for abortions, such as parental or in some cases spousal approval, trimester viability of the fetus rules, limited federal funding for services, and the well-organized, occasionally violent pro-life activists' attempts to overturn Roe.

Despite its age, A Question of Choice is relevant today for anyone interested in the milestone case and the characters behind it. The book includes a plea and specific directions for people to get involved in the pro-choice movement, which Weddington says has become complacent compared to the highly organized pro-life movement.

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