Facts and Significance of Roe v. Wade

An unmarried, pregnant woman from Texas named Norma McCorvey wanted to have an abortion. However, state law only allowed abortions in cases where the mother's life was at risk. Two University of Texas Law School graduates, Linda Coffee and Sarah Weddington, sued on McCorvey's behalf. The suit was filed against Henry Wade, who was Dallas County's District Attorney. However, due to the nature of the suit, McCorvey's name was changed to Jane Roe.

The plaintiff claimed that even though her life was not endangered from the pregnancy itself, since she could not afford to travel to a state where abortion was legal she should have the right to get an abortion in a safe environment.

Supreme Court Decision

Roe v. Wade was argued before the Supreme Court on December 13, 1971, but wasn't decided until January 22 1973. The Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice Warren Burger, decided 7-2 in favor of Roe. Just Harry Blackmun was chosen to write the majority opinion. The Court argued that the First, Fourth, Ninth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the US Constitution grant an individual a right to privacy against state laws and cited past cases ruling that marriage, contraception, and child rearing are activities covered in a "zone of privacy." Thus privacy was granted to a woman's decision to have an abortion. Further, the court ruled that prenatal life was not enough to grant the fetus the protection that "persons" receive under the law, citing the lack of a consensus of when protections were given to fetuses in criminal and civil law.

Finally, the decision did not preclude narrower state laws that would stop abortions from being done once the fetus was termed medically viable. This question of viability still remains today though as medical techniques get more advanced the window of viability has increased calling into question this part of the ruling.

In fact, some pro-choice proponents were dismayed with this portion of the ruling, feeling that the right to privacy should have been the reason cited when ruling against the Texas state law.

The Right to Privacy

The right to privacy is not explicitly listed in the United States Constitution. However, the Court pointed to an implicit right to privacy was guaranteed through the first, fourth, ninth, and fourteenth amendments. The first amendment protects an individual's right to free speech which grants an implicit right to privacy attached to that speech. Further, the fourth amendment protects against unlawful search and seizure, ensuring that individuals have a basic right to privacy in their possessions and their person. The ninth amendment states that, "The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people." Thus, just because the right is not listed in the Constitution, does not mean it is not retained and protected. Finally, the fourteenth amendment provides as stated in the Court's opinion, the "...concept of personal liberty and restrictions upon state action...."

Significance of Roe v. Wade

The Supreme Court expanded the right to privacy which is a right not explicitly found in the Constitution as explained above.

It also legalized abortions across the nation during the first six months, creating the rule of viability. This decision made almost forty years ago sparked a huge crusade against abortion with calls for new anti-abortion amendments to the Constitution while pro-choice proponents argue strongly to uphold a woman's right to choose. Beliefs about abortion are one of the key things that are discussed about presidential candidates and are used by many voters as a deciding factor in their final decision.