Roe v. Wade

The Landmark Supreme Court Decision That Legalized Abortion

A picture of a women holding a sign in favor of the right to choose.
A woman at a 1974 reproductive rights march in Pittsburgh, PA holds a sign reading 'Defend Womens Right To Choose'. (Photo by Barbara Freeman/Getty Images)

Each year, the Supreme Court reaches over one hundred decisions that impact the lives of Americans, yet few have been as controversial as the Roe v. Wade decision announced on January 22, 1973. The case concerned the right of women to seek an abortion, which was largely banned under Texas state law where the case originated in 1970. The Supreme Court ultimately ruled in a 7 to 2 vote that a woman’s right to seek an abortion is protected under the 9th and 14th Amendments.

This decision, however, did not end the fervent ethical debates about this heated subject which continue to this day.

The Origin of the Case

The case began in 1970, when Norma McCorvey (under the alias Jane Roe) sued the state of Texas, represented by Dallas District Attorney Henry Wade, over the Texas state law which banned abortion except in cases of life-threatening conditions.

McCorvey was unmarried, pregnant with her third child, and seeking an abortion. She initially claimed that she had been raped but had to back down from this claim due to the lack of a police report. McCorvey then contacted attorneys Sarah Weddington and Linda Coffee, who initiated her case against the state. Weddington would ultimately serve as the chief attorney through the resulting appeals process.

District Court Ruling

The case was first heard in the District Court of Northern Texas, where McCorvey was a resident of Dallas County.

The lawsuit, which was filed in March 1970, was accompanied by a companion case filed by a married couple identified as John and Mary Doe. The Does claimed that Mary Doe’s mental health made pregnancy and birth control pills an undesirable situation and that they wished to have the right to safely terminate a pregnancy if it occurred.

A physician, James Hallford, also joined the suit on behalf of McCorvey claiming that he deserved the right to perform the procedure of abortion if requested by his patient.

Abortion had been officially outlawed in the state of Texas since 1854. McCorvey and her co-plaintiffs argued that this ban violated rights given to them in the First, Fourth, Fifth, Ninth, and Fourteenth Amendments. The attorneys hoped that the court would find merit under at least one of those areas when deciding their ruling.

The three-judge panel at the district court heard the testimony and ruled in favor of McCorvey’s right to seek an abortion and Dr. Hallford’s right to perform one. (The court decided that the Does’ lack of present pregnancy lacked a merit to file suit.)

The district court held that the Texas abortion laws violated the right to privacy implied under the Ninth Amendment and extended to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment’s “due process” clause.

The district court also held that the Texas abortion laws should be voided, both because they infringed upon the Ninth and Fourteenth Amendments and because they were extremely vague. However, although the district court was willing to declare the Texas abortion laws invalid it was unwilling to provide injunction relief, which would stop the enforcement of the abortion laws.

Appeal to the Supreme Court

All of the plaintiffs (Roe, Does, and Hallford) and the defendant (Wade, on behalf of Texas) appealed the case to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. The plaintiffs were questioning the district court’s refusal to grant an injunction. The defendant was protesting the original decision of the lower district court. Because of the urgency of the matter, Roe requested that the case be fast-tracked to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Roe v. Wade was first heard before the Supreme Court on December 13, 1971, one term after Roe requested that the case be heard. The main reason for the delay was that the Court was addressing other cases on judicial jurisdiction and abortion statutes that they felt would impact the outcome of Roe v. Wade. Rearrangement of the Supreme Court during Roe v. Wade’s first arguments, combined with indecision about the rationale behind striking down Texas law, led the Supreme Court to make the rare request for the case be reargued the following term.

The case was reargued on October 11, 1972. On January 22, 1973, a decision was announced that favored Roe and struck down the Texas abortion statutes based on the application of the Ninth Amendment’s implied right to privacy via the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process clause. This analysis allowed the Ninth Amendment to be applied to state law, as the first ten amendments only initially applied to the federal government. The Fourteenth Amendment was interpreted to selectively incorporate portions of the Bill of Rights to the states, hence the decision in Roe v. Wade.

Seven of the Justices voted in favor of Roe and two were opposed. Justice Byron White and future Chief Justice William Rehnquist were the members of the Supreme Court who voted in dissent. Justice Harry Blackmun wrote the majority opinion and he was supported by Chief Justice Warren Burger and Justices William Douglas, William Brennan, Potter Stewart, Thurgood Marshall, and Lewis Powell.

The Court also upheld the lower court ruling that the Does did not have justification for bringing their suit and they overturned the lower court ruling in favor of Dr. Hallford, placing him into the same category as the Does.

Aftermath of Roe

The initial outcome of Roe v. Wade was that states could not restrict abortion during the first trimester, defined as the first three months of pregnancy. The Supreme Court stated that they felt states could implement some restrictions in regards to second trimester abortions and that the states could ban abortions during the third trimester.

Numerous cases have been argued before the Supreme Court since Roe v. Wade in an attempt to further define the legality of abortion and the laws regulating this practice. Despite the further definitions placed on the practice of abortions, some states are still frequently implementing laws that attempt to further restrict abortion in their states.

Numerous pro-choice and pro-life groups also argue this issue on a daily basis around the country.

Norma McCorvey’s Changing Views

Due to the timing of the case and its path to the Supreme Court, McCorvey ended up giving birth to the child whose gestation inspired the case.

The child was given up for adoption.

Today, McCorvey is a strong advocate against abortion. She frequently speaks on behalf of pro-life groups and in 2004, she filed a lawsuit requesting that the original findings in Roe v. Wade be overturned. The case, known as McCorvey v. Hill, was determined to be without merit and the original decision in Roe v. Wade still stands.