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Roy Lucas, Roe v. Wade Lawyer, Dies at 61

By Editorial Staff
Published November 7, 2003

Legal Theorist Who Helped Shape “Right to Privacy”

By IAN URBINA

Roy Lucas, a lawyer who helped fashion the “right to privacy” legal argument used in Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion in the United States, died on Monday in Prague. He was 61 and lived in Washington.

The cause was a heart attack, said his sister, Mary E. Lucas. She said her brother was in the Czech Republic doing research.

From 1966 to 1973, Mr. Lucas helped shape the legal battle for abortion rights. He was the first person to articulate fully how the Supreme Court’s 1965 Griswold decision, which created constitutional privacy protection for married couples’ use of birth control, could be legally expanded into a constitutional protection for a woman’s right to an abortion, historians say.

Mr. Lucas was a third-year law student at New York University when he made that pivotal argument in a research paper for a class on litigation. The paper was published in the June 1968 issue of the North Carolina Law Review and began circulating widely. Soon after, Mr. Lucas established the James Madison Constitutional Law Institute, a public interest legal organization based in Manhattan, to advance abortion rights.

In September 1969, he filed the first abortion rights lawsuit in New York. For the next four years, he was directly involved in almost all abortion rights suits filed across the country.

Roe v. Wade was filed in 1970, and Mr. Lucas had hoped to argue the case before the Supreme Court. But the informal committee of lawyers who were handling the case decided instead to give the assignment to another lawyer on the team, Sarah Weddington of Texas.

Mr. Lucas continued to argue abortion rights cases after Roe, but remained deeply disappointed at having been passed over as lead counsel before the Supreme Court, said David Garrow, a legal historian at Emory University and the author of “Liberty and Sexuality: The Right to Privacy and the Making of Roe v. Wade” (University of California Press, 1998).

In 1986, Mr. Lucas pulled back from his legal work, which had helped precipitate two divorces, Ms. Lucas, his sister, said. Instead of engaging in nonstop advocacy, she said, he bought a Volkswagen van and began traveling the country to pursue his love of oil painting. Accompanied only by a pet collie, Michelangelo, Mr. Lucas traveled from Maine to Hawaii, painting mostly landscapes and occasionally writing freelance magazine articles on painting techniques. He rarely stayed in one location long. For extra money, he taught law classes at local universities. He also did occasional pro bono legal work.

In 1997, Mr. Lucas was given a diagnosis of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. While undergoing chemotherapy, radiation and a bone marrow transplant, he lived in San Antonio. By 1998 the cancer was in full remission, and he moved to Washington.

Spurgeon LeRoy Lucas Jr. was born on Nov. 27, 1941, in Columbia, S.C. His father worked for the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company and his mother was a housewife. He majored in chemical engineering while earning his bachelor’s degree at the University of South Carolina.


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