It's the 48th anniversary of Roe v. Wade. Here's what you need to know about the constitutional right to access safe, legal abortion.
By Miriam Berg | Jan. 22, 2021, midnight
A 1973 U.S. Supreme Court case, Roe v. Wade, affirmed that access to safe and legal abortion is a constitutional right. But Roe v. Wade is at risk like never before. Why? Because Roe has been under mounting attacks for years, and because our federal courts are packed with judges who have records hostile to reproductive rights.
Three Supreme Court justices, as well as over 220 judges on the federal appellate and district courts, were appointed by Trump and confirmed by the U.S. Senate led by Mitch McConnell. Many of them have records unfriendly to sexual and reproductive rights. These judges, many of whom are young, have lifetime positions — and their rulings on abortion could affect generations to come.
A Right in Name Only for Some
Protecting the legal right to abortion that Roe v. Wade established is crucial. At the same time, the legal right to abortion alone isn’t enough.
Even though the right to have an abortion is the law of the land, abortion is a right in name only for many people. State abortion restrictions, as well as federal policies like the Hyde Amendment, keep abortion out of reach for millions of people across the country — particularly communities that already face systemic barriers to health care, such as Black and Brown communities, and those with low incomes.
So, your access to abortion largely depends on how much money you have, your health insurance, your race, and your ZIP code.
Take Action: Support Equal Access to Abortion
Join us in the fight to create a world in which access to abortion is a reality for everyone — a fight that centers Black, Latino/x, and Indigenous communities.
Statistics on Roe v. Wade
Today, 79% of Americans don’t want to see Roe v. Wade overturned. The data is clear: Americans support Roe v. Wade and the constitutional right to access abortion.
The data is also clear on who would be harmed if the Supreme Court were to overturn Roe v. Wade.
Roughly 25 million women and girls of reproductive age live in states where they are expected to completely lose abortion access if the United States goes back to letting states decide whether to legalize abortion (as before Roe v. Wade).
In other words, overturning Roe v. Wade could put safe, legal abortion out of reach for one-third of people ages 15–49 who may need it.
These estimates are based on populations in more than 20 states that have a combination of pre-Roe v. Wade bans, “trigger bans” that would automatically make abortion illegal if Roe falls, and/or legislatures with an established history of passing abortion restrictions.
If Roe v. Wade is overturned or further eroded, one-third of all women of reproductive age in America could lose the ability to access abortion in their state.
Abortion Access Before and After Roe v. Wade
Abortion (like birth control) has ancient roots in cultures all over the world. But by 1900, almost every state in America made abortion illegal.
Before Roe v. Wade: The Fatal Consequences of Criminalizing Abortion
Criminalizing abortion sent providers and patients into the shadows. By 1965, illegal abortions made up one-sixth of all pregnancy-related deaths in the United States — and that’s just according to official reports. Doctors think the actual number of deaths from illegal abortion was a lot higher.
Attempts to prohibit abortion particularly hurt people with low incomes: A survey conducted in the 1960s found that among women with low incomes in New York City who had obtained an abortion, eight in 10 had attempted a dangerous, self-induced procedure.
After Roe v. Wade: Safe Abortion Access
The Supreme Court’s ruling on Roe v. Wade on January 22, 1973 gave people the right to access abortion legally all across the country (although that right doesn’t mean everyone has access). The case also prevented many people dying from unsafe, illegal abortions.
When people can legally and affordably access abortion, it’s one of the safest medical procedures. In the United States, abortion has a safety record of over 99%.
Abortion is health care. Before this health care was legal and safe, illegal abortions caused at least 1 in 6 pregnancy-related deaths.
Is Roe v. Wade in Danger? Here Are the Facts.
The right to safe and legal abortion has been the law of the land for close to 50 years, and is a part of the fabric of this country. Roe v. Wade is clearly established precedent, and it shouldn’t be up for debate. Yet opponents of abortion have made it increasingly difficult for people to access — and these threats are not slowing down.
Abortion is common. Nearly 1 in 4 women in America will have an abortion during her lifetime. Where will these people go if Roe v. Wade is overturned and abortion is outlawed in their state?
Supreme Court: Trump’s Three Appointees Pose a Major Threat to Our Right to Access Abortion
Trump promised to only nominate justices who would overturn Roe v. Wade. His Supreme Court appointees — Justices Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett — all have records hostile to reproductive health and rights. These justices are in addition to three others who have in the past ruled against access to abortion, for a total of six out of nine justices with such records. Since Justice Barrett joined the court, it has already blocked a ruling that protected access to medication abortion during the pandemic.
As of January 2021, at least 19 abortion-related cases are one step away from the Supreme Court. Adverse rulings in any of these could limit our access to safe, legal abortion for decades. Roe could be overturned or weakened, eliminating what little access to abortion is left for many people in the United States.
Overturning Roe v. Wade would put more than 25 million women at risk of losing access to abortion — more than a third of women of reproductive age in this country.
- More than 4.3 million Hispanic or Latino women
- Nearly 3.5 million Black or African American women
More than 800,000 Asian women
Nearly 300,000 American Indian or Alaska Native women
Existing Federal Abortion Ban
An abortion ban that became law in 2003 and was upheld by a Supreme Court abortion decision in 2007 criminalizes certain abortion procedures in the second trimester of pregnancy — procedures that doctors say are often the safest and best to protect women's health.
State Attempts to Reverse Roe v. Wade
In Roe v. Wade, the U.S. Supreme Court recognized that the U.S. Constitution protects a person's right to make their own medical decisions, including the decision to have an abortion. Through the more than 45 years since that landmark ruling — in decisions including Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey and Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt — the Supreme Court has honored this core principle.
Despite this precedent and Americans' consistent support for Roe v. Wade, state legislators continue to attack abortion access through ballot measures and legislative restrictions. As a result of those efforts, about 20 states are poised to ban access to abortion should Roe v. Wade be overturned.
Some of these states have existing abortion bans or trigger laws from before Roe v. Wade that could ban abortion immediately if Roe were overturned. These are also states with politicians hostile to abortion in power and an established history of passing abortion restrictions. Right now, 31 states have legislatures with majorities hostile to abortion, and 19 states have governors who want to outlaw abortion.
State Limits on Abortion Access
Attacking abortion access isn’t just about overturning Roe itself. States have been chipping away at abortion access for decades, with the goal of pushing safe and legal abortion out of reach altogether.
From 2011 through 2020, states enacted 480 abortion restrictions. That’s over one-third of the 1,304 restrictions passed by states since 1973. These laws seek to shame, pressure, and punish people who decide to have an abortion.
Many of these laws blatantly flout Supreme Court precedent. That includes dangerous abortion bans passed in several states to put abortion out of reach before many people know they’re pregnant. Those bans on abortion early in pregnancy are currently blocked by the lower federal courts, but those cases could end up being reviewed by the Supreme Court.
The restrictions aren’t slowing down. Dozens more anti-abortion bills are winding their way through state legislatures.
Efforts to Expand Access
In the face of these threats, there is hope. Pro-reproductive health lawmakers have stepped up to not only ensure abortion remains safe and legal in their states under Roe, but also EXPAND access.
One of those laws is New York’s Reproductive Health Act. When it passed in January 2019, it was hailed as one of the strongest protections for abortion access in any state in the country. The Act ensures that if Roe v. Wade were ever overturned, abortion would remain a legal health procedure in New York — and patients and doctors would not go to jail. It also expands access to abortion later in pregnancy if the pregnancy cannot survive. The Reproductive Health Act is about making sure that at every point in a pregnancy, a patient's health (not a politician's ideology) drives medical decisions.
Several other states have passed similar bills that safeguard residents’ right to legally and safely access abortion — no matter what might happen at the U.S. Supreme Court.
Americans Overwhelmingly Support the Roe v. Wade Decision
The 77% of Americans who don’t want to see Roe v. Wade overturned represent the highest rate of support for the case since it was decided nearly 50 years ago — and includes people who voted for Trump. Polling shows that:
- 67% of Americans think abortion should be legal in all or most cases.
Most Americans want lawmakers to stay out of the issue of abortion altogether rather than pass new laws to restrict access.
When state legislators introduce or amend abortion laws, most Americans want them to focus on protecting or expanding abortion access rather than trying to restrict it.
Americans are almost twice as likely to vote for a state legislative candidate who supports abortion access.
Moderates overwhelmingly support Roe v. Wade.
71% of self-described moderate Republicans and liberal Republicans
82% of moderate and conservative Democrats
Roe v. Wade has strong support from Catholic Americans.
Six in 10 Catholics support the decision.
People of color overwhelmingly support Roe v. Wade.
79% of African Americans
71% of Latinxs
74% of Asians/Pacific Islanders
Ensuring That You Have Health Care, No Matter What
Americans don't believe that politicians or judges should be making personal decisions for them about their pregnancies.
Planned Parenthood knows firsthand why it’s so critical that everyone have access to a comprehensive range of reproductive health care services, including safe and legal abortion. Planned Parenthood is America’s most trusted provider of reproductive health care. One in five American women has chosen Planned Parenthood for health care at least once in her life. Planned Parenthood’s expert health care professionals are dedicated to offering all people high-quality, affordable medical care.
For generations now, we have had the right to make our own personal decisions about when and whether to become a parent, including the right to access to safe, legal abortion services.
It’s up to us — not politicians or judges — to make these fundamental decisions.
Tags: roe v wade, Supreme Court, abortion rights