Sunday, February 27, 2011

Margie Pitts Hames and the Other Landmark Abortion Rights Case: Recalling a “Swashbuckling” Woman Lawyer

Many people know the name “Sarah Weddington.” The young lawyer famously litigated Roe v. Wade, the landmark abortion rights case. Weddington chronicled her feats in a memoir, A Question of Choice: By the Lawyer Who Won Roe v. Wade.

While an unquestionably important figure, Weddington did not, alone, fight for abortion rights for women. And Roe v. Wade did not, alone, establish a woman’s constitutional right to elect abortion.

Margie Pitts Hames, shown on the right (picture courtesy of the Fulton County Daily Report), litigated and won Doe v. Bolton, 410 U.S. 179 (1973), the companion case to Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973). In Doe, Hames successfully challenged a Georgia statute that required abortions to be performed in hospitals and only with advance approval of a hospital committee. Together, Doe and Roe established that the constitutional right to privacy encompassed a woman’s decision whether to terminate her pregnancy. (Justice Blackmun wrote the opinion in Doe for the same 7-2 majority that ruled in favor of an abortion right in Roe). Hames’s victory in Doe earned her plaudits from contemporaries, who called her a “catalyst for women’s rights” and a "pioneer” for women’s equality.

Hames also litigated civil rights claims in police brutality, employment discrimination, welfare rights and education cases. Fresh off of her victory in Doe, she litigated an important school desegregation case; against the odds, Hames sought metropolitan-wide desegregation in Atlanta. I discovered the lawyer during research for my book, Courage to Dissent: Atlanta and the Long History of the Civil Rights Movement, which discusses, among other things, the gap between the right articulated in Brown v. Board of Education and the remedies that plaintiffs actually achieved in the Atlanta school case. Hames’s varied experiences as a litigator illuminate how gender, race, and class—of clients, lawyers and decision makers of all sorts—shaped postwar struggles for equality.

“Hames’s story—and how she became a crusading feminist lawyer and civil rights advocate—says much about the sometimes unexpected ways in which people and causes find one another,” notes the chapter on this remarkable lawyer. A Southern white woman, Hames grew up on a farm in rural Tennessee. She was raised in a Christian home with strict, churchgoing parents—not traditionally a breeding ground for liberal causes. But her family was poor, and she lived and worked amidst black tenant farmers. “As a result of her close proximity to blacks, she could see their humanity.” Hames “developed the first stirrings of consciousness against both abortion restrictions and racial discrimination in her youth when a schoolteacher stated that the only acceptable time for an abortion was “when a black man raped a white woman.” This “moral” exception to abortion based on “racial prejudice” “planted the seed of doubt” in Hames’s mind about the anti-abortion position. When her classmates at Vanderbilt University School of Law repeated the same “moral” exception to abortion that her grade-school teacher had championed, Hames’s commitment to abortion rights work took root.

After considering her abortion rights work, the book examines Hames’s efforts in the school desegregation context. In the school case, Hames and her clients, mostly low-income black women who existed on society's bottom rungs, challenged the entire power structure of Atlanta. Most white and black decision makers had turned against school integration (if they had ever supported it). It came as no surprise that Hamesa woman once called a “swashbuckling” attorney by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund's director-counsel, Jack Greenberg—defied convention and took on the fight.