Roe v. Wade Supreme Court Decision

Overview of the Decision on Abortion

Pro-choice and pro-life signs at 2005 march in Washington, DC.
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Roe v. Wade is the historic Supreme Court decision overturning a Texas interpretation of abortion law and making abortion legal in the United States. The Roe v. Wade decision held that a woman, with her doctor, could choose abortion in earlier months of pregnancy without legal restriction, and with restrictions in later months, based on the right to privacy.

Date of the Roe v. Wade decision

January 22, 1973.

Effect of the Roe v. Wade decision:

All state laws limiting women's access to abortions during the first trimester of pregnancy were invalidated by Roe v. Wade. 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. 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.

Basis of the Roe v. Wade decision:

The lower court's decision in this case was that the Ninth Amendment, a part of the Bill of Rights, in stating 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 Fourteenth Amendment. Roe v. Wade was decided primarily on the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

A criminal statute that did not take into account the stage of pregnancy or other interests than the life of the mother was deemed 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 in 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 viability of the fetus (the likely ability of the fetus to be able to survive outside and separated from the uterus), the potential of human life could be considered as a legitimate state interest, and the state could choose to "regulate, or even proscribe abortion" as long as the life and health of the mother was protected.

Who Roe and Wade were:

The alias "Jane Roe" was used for Norma McCorvey, on whose behalf the suit was originally filed, alleging that the abortion law in Texas violated her constitutional rights and the rights of other women.. The defendant was the district attorney of Dallas County, Texas, Henry B. Wade.

Who argued the case:

Sarah Weddington and Linda Coffee were the plaintiff's lawyers.

John Tolle, Jay Floyd and Robert Flowers were the defendant's lawyers.

Who voted for and against the Roe v. Wade decision:

The majority: Harry Blackmun, William J. Brennan, Chief Justice Warren Burger, William O. Douglas, Thurgood Marshall, Lewis Powell and Potter Stewart. The dissent: William Rehnquist and Byron White. The majority opinion was written by Harry Blackmun. Concurring opinions were written by Potter Stewart, Warren Burger, and William O. Douglas. Dissenting opinions were written by William Rehnquist and Byron White.

Where to read the whole Roe v. Wade decision:

On this site: Roe v Wade Supreme Court Decision 1973

More on Roe v. Wade:

  • History of restrictive abortion laws in the United States, as summarized in the Roe v. Wade decision of the U.S. Supreme Court, 1973
  • Roe v. Wade - text of the Supreme Court decision, 1973, with opinions written by Justices Blackmun, Stewart, Rehnquist, Burger, Douglas and White.
  • Abortion in the Ancient and Premodern World