The Roe v. Wade Supreme Court Decision

Pro-choice and pro-life signs at 2005 march in Washington, DC.
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On January 22, 1973, the Supreme Court handed down its historic decision in Roe v. Wade. This significant court case overturned a Texas interpretation of abortion law and made abortion legal in the United States. It is seen as a turning point in women's reproductive rights.

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

The Effect of the Roe v. Wade Decision

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. 

The Basis of the Roe v. Wade Decision

The lower court's decision, in this case, was based on the Ninth Amendment in the Bill of Rights. It stated that "the enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people" protected a person's right to privacy.

The Supreme Court chose to base its decision on the First, Fourth, Ninth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. Past cases were cited that ruled decisions in marriage, contraception, and child-rearing were protected in the under the implicit right to privacy in the Bill of Rights. Therefore, it was a woman's private decision to seek an abortion.

Despite that, Roe v. Wade was decided primarily on the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. They deemed that a criminal statute that did not take into account the stage of pregnancy or interests other than the life of the mother was a violation of Due Process.

Acceptable Government Regulation According to Roe v. Wade

The court considered the term "person" in the law and looked at how to define when life begins, including various religious and medical opinions. The court also looked at the likelihood of life for the fetus if a pregnancy ended naturally or artificially during each trimester of pregnancy. 

They determined that different rules at different stages of pregnancy were considered appropriate:

  • 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.

Who Were Roe and Wade?

The alias "Jane Roe" was used for Norma McCorvey, on whose behalf the suit was originally filed. It alleged that the abortion law in Texas violated her constitutional rights and the rights of other women.

At the time, Texas law stated that abortion was legal only if the mother's life was endangered. McCorvey was unwed and pregnant, but could not afford to travel to a state in which abortion was legal. Despite the fact that her life was not at risk, the plaintiff argued that she had the right to seek an abortion in a safe environment. 

The defendant was the district attorney of Dallas County, Texas, Henry B. Wade. Arguments for Roe v. Wade began on December 13, 1971. University of Texas graduates, Sarah Weddington and Linda Coffee were the plaintiff's lawyers. John Tolle, Jay Floyd, and Robert Flowers were the defendant's lawyers.

The Vote For and Against Roe v. Wade

Over a year after hearing arguments, the Supreme Court finally made its decision on Roe v. Wade, with a 7–2 ruling in favor of Roe.

In the majority were Chief Justice Warren Burger and Justices Harry Blackmun, William J. Brennan, William O. Douglas, Thurgood Marshall, Lewis Powell, and Potter Stewart. The majority opinion was written by Blackmun. Concurring opinions were written by Stewart, Burger, and Douglas. 

Only William Rehnquist and Byron White were in the dissent and both wrote dissenting opinions.