A Brief History of Roe v Wade

Viewing area facing the US Supreme Court bench.
Viewing area facing the US Supreme Court bench. Photo credit to @jackieboylhart at Unsplash.

If there’s ever been a controversial Supreme Court decision, it’s Roe v Wade. All Supreme Court nominees are asked about their opinion on “Roe”, and any discussions around it inevitably lead to protests from one side or the other. The case, which was decided in 1973, legalized abortion in the United States. For many Americans, Roe v. Wade is a deeply personal issue.

In a country where Christian values are often seen as the norm to be upheld, despite the separation of Church and State, the idea that a woman has the right to end a pregnancy is deeply controversial. Still, few people understand the details of Roe or how it came to be. 
Abortion has been around for as long as women have been pregnant. Until the beginning of the 19th Century, abortion was legal in the United States, generally until the moment of “quickening”, when the woman first feels the baby move. It wasn’t until the 1820s that states began to outlaw the procedure, mainly based on the Catholic Church’s influence and pressure from the medical profession, who were worried about competition from unlicensed abortion providers, who were often women.

By 1900, every state had some form of law against abortion. These laws were generally only enforced against providers, not women seeking the procedure. During the 1960s, with the sexual revolution, changing views on contraception, and the rise of the women’s rights movement, women were beginning to challenge these laws.

By the time of Roe v. Wade, abortion was legal in New York, Hawaii, Alaska, and Washington.

The Roe v. Wade decision was handed down by the Supreme Court on the 22nd of January 1973, and it has been one of the most controversial and divisive issues in the United States ever since.

The case began when a young, unmarried woman named Norma McCorvey got pregnant and wanted an abortion. In Texas, where McCorvey lived, abortion was only legal if the mother’s life was in danger. McCorvey couldn’t afford to travel to another state where abortion was legal. She heard that two lawyers, Sarah Weddington and Linda Coffee, were looking for a plaintiff like her to challenge the Texas law.

Weddington and Coffee filed a lawsuit on McCorvey’s behalf against the district attorney of Dallas County, Henry Wade. The case argued that the state’s abortion law was unconstitutional, as it violated a woman’s right to privacy, which was implicit in the 14th amendment.

In June 1970, a Texas district court ruled in McCorvey’s favor. However, they declined to issue an injunction against the state law, meaning that even though they recognized a woman’s right to abortion, they would not do anything to enforce it. The case made its way to the Supreme Court.

With a majority 7-2 opinion, written by Justice Harry Blackmun, the ruling struck down the Texas abortion laws and legalized abortion nationwide. The Court held that the right to privacy included a woman’s right to choose whether or not to have an abortion and that this right outweighed the state’s interest in protecting fetal life.

The ruling stated the following: in the first trimester, the decision to have an abortion must be left up to the woman without state interference; in the second trimester, states could regulate abortion only to protect the woman’s health; finally, in the third trimester, when the fetus is considered viable, states could ban abortion except when necessary to save the woman’s life or health.

The Roe v. Wade decision was immediately controversial and has remained so for the past fifty years. Pro-choice advocates see it as a victory for women’s rights, while pro-life advocates believe it has led to the deaths of millions of unborn children.

In the years since Roe v. Wade was decided, there have been numerous attempts to overturn it or chip away at its ruling. In the 1989 case of Webster v. Reproductive Health Services, the Supreme Court upheld a Missouri law that banned the use of public funds, facilities, and employees for abortions. This ruling came at a time when there was a significant shift in the composition of the Supreme Court, with several conservative justices appointed by President Ronald Reagan. It was the first time since Roe v. Wade that the Supreme Court had upheld any restrictions on abortion, which led to several states passing similar laws banning public funding for abortion.

In 1992, the Court issued its ruling in the case of Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which upheld a Pennsylvania law that placed several restrictions on abortion, including a 24-hour waiting period and parental consent for minors.

The Court’s ruling in Casey did uphold the core principle of Roe v. Wade that a woman has a right to an abortion, but it also gave states more leeway to enact restrictions.

In the 2007 case of Gonzales v. Carhart, the Supreme Court upheld the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act, which made it a federal crime to perform a certain type of late-term abortion. This was the first time the Court had upheld a nationwide ban on any type of abortion. It overruled the basic underlying principle of Roe v. Wade that any abortion regulations must make an exception to safeguard a woman’s health.
Most recently (2022), Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization questioned the constitutionality of a Mississippi law that banned most abortions after 15 weeks. Roe v. Wade prohibited states from banning abortions before viability, which is typically around 24 weeks. Lower courts had ruled that the law was unconstitutional, but on June 24, 2022, the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 to uphold the Mississippi law, effectively overturning Roe‘s 50 years of legal precedent.
By overturning Roe v. Wade, states can now ban abortions at any point during pregnancy.

Written by Editorial Team

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