The Roe v. Wade Supreme Court Decision

Pro-choice and pro-life signs at 2005 march in Washington, DC.
Alex Wong / Getty Images

On January 22, 1973, the Supreme Court handed down its historic decision in Roe v. Wade, overturning a Texas interpretation of abortion law and making abortion legal in the United States. It was a turning point in women's reproductive rights, and has remained a hot-button issue within the United States political climate ever since.

The Roe v. Wade decision held that a woman, with her doctor, could choose abortion in earlier months of pregnancy without legal restriction, based primarily on the right to privacy. In later trimesters, state restrictions could be applied.

Roe v. Wade

  • Roe v. Wade was a Supreme Court decision making abortions legal throughout the United States. 
  • The case originated in 1970 as a suit by Jane Doe, a single, pregnant Texan, against Henry Wade, a Texas state official who enforced anti-abortion laws.
  • The Court found for Doe, primarily on the basis of privacy rights as outlined in the 9th and 14th Amendments.
  • The decision was 7–2, with the majority opinion written by Justice Harry A. Blackmun.

Facts of the Case 

In 1969 Texan Norma McCorvey was a poor, working class 22-year-old woman, unmarried and looking to end an unwanted pregnancy. But in Texas, abortion was illegal unless it was "for the purpose of saving the life of the mother.” She was eventually referred to attorneys Sarah Weddington and Linda Coffee, who were looking for a plaintiff to challenge the Texas law. On their advice, McCorvey, using the pseudonym Jane Roe, filed a lawsuit against the Dallas County district attorney Henry Wade, an official responsible for enforcing criminal laws, including anti-abortion statutes. The suit said the law was unconstitutional because it was an invasion of her privacy; she sought the overturn of the law and an injunction so she could go ahead with the abortion. 

The district court agreed with McCorvey that the law was unconstitutionally vague and violated her right to privacy under the 9th and 14th amendments, but refused to issue an injunction. McCorvey appealed and the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case, along with another case called Doe v. Bolton, lodged against a similar Georgia statute.

The Supreme Court case filing occurred on March 3, 1970, when McCorvey was six months pregnant; she eventually gave birth and that child was adopted. She said she wanted to continue with the case to support other women's rights.

Arguments for Roe v. Wade began on December 13, 1971. Weddington and Coffee were the plaintiff's lawyers. John Tolle, Jay Floyd, and Robert Flowers were the defendant's lawyers.

Constitutional Issues 

The Roe v. Wade case was argued for the plaintiff Jane Roe on the grounds that the Texas abortion law violated the Fourteenth and Ninth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. The Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment guarantees equal protection under the law to all citizens and, in particular, required that laws be clearly written. 

Previous cases challenging abortion laws usually cited the Fourteenth Amendment, claiming that the law was not specific enough when a woman's life might be threatened by pregnancy and childbirth. However, since attorneys Coffee and Weddington wanted a decision that rested on a pregnant woman's right to decide for herself whether or not an abortion was necessary, they based their argument on the Ninth Amendment, which states: "The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people." The framers of the Constitution had recognized that new rights might be developed in years to come and they wanted to be able to protect those rights.

The state prepared its case primarily on the basis that a fetus had legal rights, which ought to be protected.

The Arguments

The argument for the plaintiff Jane Doe stated that, under the U.S. Bill of Rights, a woman has the right to terminate her pregnancy. It is improper for a State to impose on a woman's right to privacy in personal, marital, familial, and sexual decisions. There is no case in the Court's history that declares that a fetus—a developing infant in the womb—is a person. Therefore, the fetus cannot be said to have any legal "right to life." Because it is unduly intrusive, the Texas law is unconstitutional and should be overturned.

The argument for the State argued that the State has a duty to protect prenatal life. The unborn are people, and as such are entitled to protection under the Constitution because life is present at the moment of conception. The Texas law was, therefore, a valid exercise of police powers reserved to the States in order to protect the health and safety of citizens, including the unborn. The law is constitutional and should be upheld.

Majority Opinion 

On Jan. 22, 1973, the Supreme Court handed down their ruling, holding that a woman's right to an abortion falls within the right to privacy protected by the Fourteenth Amendment. The decision gave a woman a right to abortion during the entirety of the pregnancy and defined different levels of state interest for regulating abortion in the second and third trimesters. 

  • In the first trimester, the state (that is, any government) could treat abortion only as a medical decision, leaving medical judgment to the woman's physician.
  • In the second trimester (before viability), the state's interest was seen as legitimate when it was protecting the health of the mother.
  • After the viability of the fetus (the likely ability of the fetus to survive outside of and separated from the uterus), the potential of human life could be considered as a legitimate state interest. The state could choose to "regulate, or even proscribe abortion" as long as the life and health of the mother was protected.

Majority: Harry A. Blackmun (for The Court), William J. Brennan, Lewis F. Powell Jr., Thurgood Marshall. Concurring: Warren Burger, William Orville Douglas, Potter Stewart

Dissenting Opinion

In his dissenting opinion, Justice William H. Rehnquist argued that the framers of the Fourteenth Amendment did not intend it to protect a right of privacy, a right which they did not recognize and that they definitely did not intend for it to protect a woman’s decision to have an abortion. Justice Rehnquist further argued that the only right to privacy is that which is protected by the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition of unreasonable searches and seizures. The Ninth Amendment does not apply here. 

Finally, he concluded that because this issue required a careful balance of the interests of the woman against the interests of the state, it was not an appropriate decision for the Court to make, but instead was a question that should have been left up to state legislatures to resolve.

Dissenting: William H. Rehnquist (for The Court), Byron R. White

The Impact

The Texas statute was struck down in toto, and further, Roe v. Wade legalized abortion in the United States, which was not legal at all in many states and was limited by law in others.

All state laws limiting women's access to abortions during the first trimester of pregnancy were invalidated by the Roe v. Wade decision. State laws limiting such access during the second trimester were upheld only when the restrictions were for the purpose of protecting the health of the pregnant woman. 

Sources