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For almost 30 years, since Austin, Texas, attorney Sarah Weddington successfully argued the landmark case of Roe v. Wade, the topic of legalized abortion has ignited passionate debate. The debate flared up again recently with the selection of Weddington as commencement speaker for the May graduation ceremony at the University of Houston Law Center. About 20 students met on March 6 with Dean Nancy Rapoport to protest the pick as divisive and inappropriate at a graduation. The fact that Weddington has been asked to speak about leadership has not swayed the protesters, who said that the attorney is associated with the abortion issue, no matter what the topic of her speech. “I think of the graduation ceremony as something that is unifying,” third-year law student JoAnna Rush, 25, said. Because all the graduates don’t agree on the subject of abortion, Rush didn’t see how having Weddington as a speaker could unify the class. Third-year student Madeleine Bullard, 39, who organized the protesters, said a commencement is “not a time for political statements.” Weddington is famous for the Roe case and can’t be separated from it, she says. “We feel Roe v. Wade is a badly decided decision,” Bullard said. “It’s America’s shame. It’s legalized what we believe to be the murder of 42 million children.” Bullard and Rush said they would have no objection to Weddington speaking on campus in another forum, such as a lecture series — they just don’t want her speaking at their graduation. Bullard said she hopes Rapoport will change her mind and invite someone else. But the dean, who made the decision to invite Weddington, said her mind is made up. “The invitation stands,” she said. Rapoport said that the decision to have a separate commencement for the law center was made recently, requiring fast work and a quick decision to get a nationally known speaker. The dispute over the speaker selection is a “generational thing,” Rapoport said. For example, to Rapoport, Weddington represents leadership. “I did not invite her because she is pro-choice,” Rapoport said. “I invited her because she was 27 years old when she argued that case.” She added, “A lawyer has to represent unpopular causes or we’re not doing our job.” In the future, Rapoport said, she’ll ask for student suggestions but the final decision on a commencement speaker has to belong to the dean. Bullard said some students have talked about protesting by turning their backs on Weddington when she speaks. “They have a First Amendment right to protest,” Rapoport said. “Even though I disagree with the students and even though I want them to learn about the lawyer’s role in society, I’m glad they’re standing up for what they believe.” Weddington has served in the Texas House of Representatives and was an assistant to President Jimmy Carter from 1979 to 1981. She did not return three phone calls seeking comment by press time.

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