Supreme Court Decisions and Women's Reproductive Rights

Understanding Contraceptive Choice, Federal Law, and the Constitution

The classical columns of the Supreme Court Building set against a clear blue sky

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Limits on reproductive rights and decisions by women were mostly covered by state laws in the U.S. until the last half of the 20th century, when the Supreme Court began to decide court cases about bodily autonomy, pregnancy, birth control, and abortion access. The following key decisions in constitutional history concern women's control over their reproductive choices.

1965: Griswold v. Connecticut

In Griswold v. Connecticut, the Supreme Court found a right to marital privacy in choosing to use birth control, invalidating state laws that prohibited the use of birth control by married persons.

1973: Roe v. Wade

In the historic Roe v. Wade decision, the Supreme Court held that in the earlier months of pregnancy, a woman, in consultation with her doctor, could choose to have an abortion without legal restrictions, and could also make the choice with some restrictions later in pregnancy. The basis for the decision was the right to privacy, a right inferred from the Fourteenth Amendment. Doe v. Bolton was also decided that day, calling into question criminal abortion statutes.

1974: Geduldig v. Aiello

Geduldig v. Aiello looked at a state's disability insurance system which excluded temporary absences from work due to pregnancy, and found that normal pregnancies did not have to be covered by the system.

1976: Planned Parenthood v. Danforth

The Supreme Court found that spousal consent laws for abortions (in this case, in the third trimester) were unconstitutional because the pregnant woman's rights were more compelling than her husband's. The Court did uphold that regulations requiring the woman's full and informed consent were constitutional.

1977: Beal v. Doe, Maher v. Roe, and Poelker v. Doe

In these abortion cases, the Court found that states were not required to use public funds for elective abortions.

1980: Harris v. Mcrae

The Supreme Court upheld the Hyde Amendment, which excluded Medicaid payments for all abortions, even those that were found to be medically necessary.

1983: Akron v. Akron Center for Reproductive Health, Planned Parenthood v. Ashcroft, and Simopoulos v. Virginia

In these cases, the Court struck down state regulations designed to dissuade women from abortion, requiring physicians to give advice that the physician might not agree with. The Court also struck down a waiting period for informed consent and a requirement that abortions after the first trimester be performed in licensed acute-care hospitals. Simopoulos v. Virginia upheld limiting second-trimester abortions to licensed facilities.

1986: Thornburgh v. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists

The Court was asked by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists to issue an injunction on enforcement of a new anti-abortion law in Pennsylvania. The administration of President Reagan asked the Court to overturn Roe v. Wade in their decision. The Court upheld Roe based on women's rights, not based on physicians' rights.

1989: Webster v. Reproductive Health Services

In the case of Webster v. Reproductive Health Services, the Court upheld some limits on abortions, including:

  • Prohibiting the involvement of public facilities and public employees in performing abortions except to save the life of the mother
  • Prohibiting counseling by public employees that might encourage abortions
  • Requiring viability tests on fetuses after the 20th week of pregnancy

But the Court also stressed that it was not ruling on the Missouri statement about life beginning at conception, and was not overturning the essence of the Roe decision.

1992: Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey

In Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the Court upheld both the constitutional right to have an abortion as well as some restrictions, while still upholding the essence of Roe. The test on restrictions was moved from the heightened scrutiny standard established under Roe, and instead looked at whether a restriction put an undue burden on the mother. The court struck down a provision requiring spousal notice and upheld other restrictions.

2000: Stenberg v. Carhart

The Supreme Court found a law making "partial-birth abortion" was unconstitutional, violating the Due Process Clause from the 5th and 14th Amendments.

2007: Gonzales v. Carhart

The Supreme Court upheld the federal Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003, applying the undue burden test.

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Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Supreme Court Decisions and Women's Reproductive Rights." ThoughtCo, Jul. 31, 2021, Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2021, July 31). Supreme Court Decisions and Women's Reproductive Rights. Retrieved from Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Supreme Court Decisions and Women's Reproductive Rights." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 10, 2023).