Roe v. Wade, the landmark case decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1973, held that the U.S. Constitution protects the right to abortion. But who were the people involved in the case? What was the decision based on? And how did this case reach the Supreme Court in an era when laws prohibiting abortion were the norm? The history of Roe v. Wade is critical to understanding the evolution of abortion access in America.
The Road to Roe v. Wade
Roe v. Wade was named for "Jane Roe," a pseudonym of a Texas resident named Norma McCorvey, and Henry Wade — then-district attorney for Dallas County, Texas.
In 1969, McCorvey was denied access to abortion because her pregnancy didn’t pose a medical risk to her life. At the time, Texas made abortion a crime unless a patient would die without it.
This was not uncommon. Across the United States, lawmakers had the authority to force pregnant people to stay pregnant. Most states outlawed abortion — with some exceptions to save a patient from imminent death, or for limited reasons such as rape, incest, or fetal anomaly. So, those who had the means would travel to other states or countries where abortion was legal. People with low incomes, like McCorvey, had no such options.
Meanwhile, a group of Texas lawyers including Sarah Weddington and Linda Coffee were trying to put together a case to advocate for overturning abortion bans. Coffee learned of McCorvey through a friend who was an adoption attorney, and in 1970 the three women sat down together at a restaurant in Dallas. They discussed McCorvey’s despair over not being able to get an abortion and the horrors of unsafe, illegal abortions nationwide — including stories of women who died from them.
'Yes,' [Sarah Weddington] said, 'it’s really unfair and inhuman, and it shouldn’t have to happen to any woman, rich or poor, anywhere.' That’s why, she said, she and Linda and some other people who thought just like them were working hard to overturn the Texas law against abortions. Their weapon was a legal project, a lawsuit, to challenge the law in the courts.—Norma McCorvey, 1994 (Harper Collins, via Longreads)
Coffee and Weddington filed suit on McCorvey's behalf soon after that meeting. Dr. James Hallford, a Texas doctor facing charges for abortions he had performed, later joined forces with McCorvey in the lawsuit against Henry Wade.
Privacy on Trial
The case came down to one big question: Does the Constitution recognize a pregnant person’s right to have an abortion?
Weddington — then 26 years old — argued the case before an all-male Supreme Court on Dec. 13, 1971, then reargued the case on Oct. 11, 1972. It’s exceedingly rare for Supreme Court justices to order a reargument and they generally don’t share their reasons — but rearguments do tend to involve cases that spotlight particularly controversial issues (such as Brown v. Board of Education).
The Roe v. Wade Decision
On January 22, 1973, the Supreme Court issued its opinion. Seven of the nine justices agreed: Roe won! The due process clause of the 14th Amendment of the Constitution protects the right of an individual to choose to terminate their pregnancy prior to viability.
A Landmark Ruling…
For the first time, the Supreme Court recognized that the due process clause protects a person’s decision to terminate their pregnancy.
The Roe decision rendered the abortion bans in states across the country unconstitutional. That made abortion services safe and vastly more accessible throughout the United States.
…And A Vulnerable Ruling
The Supreme Court based its decision in Roe v. Wade on decades of precedent about people’s right to make decisions about their private lives, and expanded it to include abortion rights. Eight years prior, the Supreme Court had expanded privacy rights to legalize birth control for married women.
However, the ruling didn’t make the right to privacy absolute. That left the door open for legislators to put in place some of the policies that restrict abortion access we still see today.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg later suggested that Roe v. Wade might have led to less controversy had the Supreme Court grounded its decision in 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause — which declares the law must treat all people equally — rather than the right to privacy.
The Roe decision might have been less of a storm center had it both homed in more precisely on the women's equality dimension of the issue and, correspondingly, attempted nothing more bold at that time than the mode of decision-making the Court employed in the 1970s gender classification cases.—Ruth Bader Ginsburg, December 1992
After the Roe v. Wade decision, politicians proceeded to systematically chip away at the right to abortion by creating barriers to actually access abortion.
In 1992, in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the Supreme Court reaffirmed the core holdings of Roe — but adopted a new “undue burden” standard that allowed states to impose even more restrictions. Since 1973, states have enacted more than 1,336 abortion restrictions. The worst year on record? 2021.
A new abortion law in Texas, S.B. 8, has rendered Roe nearly meaningless for the vast majority of patients in that state. Although Roe remains the law of the land, S.B. 8 bans abortion after six weeks of pregnancy — before many people even know they’re pregnant. This ban makes abortion access a right in name only.
On December 1, nearly 49 years after the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling, the Supreme Court will hear arguments in a case that directly challenges the constitutional right to access abortion.
The law at issue in that case is a Mississippi ban on abortion at 15 weeks of pregnancy.
The state of Mississippi has asked the Supreme Court to jettison a core holding of Roe: that prior to viability, a state may not ban abortion.
Mississippi also asked the Supreme Court to overrule Roe and Casey entirely.
A decision is expected in the first half of 2022.
If the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, each state will have the power to decide whether to keep abortion legal or ban it outright — the way it was before 1973. Find out what’s expected to happen in your state if Roe v. Wade is overturned.
Bottom Line: Abortion Restrictions Take Away Human Rights
Politics have no place in a person's personal health care decisions. Planned Parenthood knows no one is free unless they have the right to control their own body.
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