Before abortion was legalized nationally in the United States, women paid hefty fees to procure abortions, often illegally, even from untrained and unlicensed practitioners working under unhygienic conditions. Complications from such backstreet abortions were a leading cause of maternal deaths when abortions were still prohibited in the US. In 1973, the supreme court in the ruling of Roe v. Wade established the right to legal abortion in all the states, and as a result, abortion was legalized and is now medically safe procedure and less expensive. Today, women in the US can choose a trained medical practitioner to perform an abortion, and almost 90% of abortions in the US are performed during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, and the dangers of complications are minimal.
8. Overview of the Case
Prior to the court decision, most states in the United States banned, or at least severely restricted, abortions. The Feminist movement and sexual revolution of the 1960s provided the ground to challenge these restrictions. In 1970, two recent law graduates from the University of Texas, Linda Coffee and Sarah Weddington, filed a lawsuit on behalf of Norman L. McCorvey a pregnant woman and resident of Dallas. McCorvey in the case was referred as Jane Roe, and she claimed that the state laws in Texas that criminalized abortion was violating her constitutional rights. All types of abortions in Texas were banned except those crucial in saving the life of the mother. Roe argued that although her life was not in danger, she was not able to travel out of the state because of financial constraints and therefore had the right and entitled to end her pregnancy in a medically safe environment. The defendant in the lawsuit was the Dallas County District Attorney, Henry Wade in Texas Federal Court. Finally, the court found that the law contravened the constitution. Wade made an appeal to the US Supreme Court, and in a 7-2 decision, the court ruled for Roe stating that the Texas statute violated Jane Roe’s constitutional right to privacy and that a woman's right to privacy extended to the option of having an abortion.
7. Abortion Laws in America Prior to 1973
Before 1973, abortion was banned and prohibited outright in 30 states, while it was legal under certain circumstances in 20 other states. Pregnancies resulting from incest and rape or when the life of the mother was in danger were the circumstances that allowed termination of pregnancy. The first law banning abortion in the US was espoused in 1821 by the state of Connecticut that criminalized any substance or poison that would induce a miscarriage. Maine, in 1840 became the first state in the US to pass legislation that explicitly protected the unborn fetus. In the mid-19th century, the American Medical Association (AMA) as a newly formed organization lobbied physicians and medical societies to support the legislation against abortion. Over the next 20 years, 31 states amended or enacted laws on abortion that protected unborn children. During this period, Congress passed the 14th amendment, and 28 states endorsed the amendment prohibiting any state from depriving any person of life, liberty or property. By 1910, all states except Kentucky had enacted the anti-abortion laws. By 1967, abortion was a felony in 49 states while in it was a high misdemeanor in New Jersey. In the same year California, Colorado, and North Carolina became the first to approve reforms to abortion laws. In 1970 Alaska, Washington, New York, and Hawaii passed laws allowing abortion on demand and the state of New York was the only one without the requirement of residency.
6. The Case of Norma Leah McCorvey
In 1970, attorneys Linda Coffee and Sarah Weddington appeared on behalf of Norman Leah McCorvey, who was known by her pseudonym name Jane Roe. McCorvey (Roe) was a Dallas resident who was pregnant for the third time and wanted to terminate her pregnancy. The suit was filed in the United States District of Texas. The defendant in the suit was Henry Wade the Dallas County Attorney who was representing the state of Texas. The Three-judge bench of the District Court consisting of Judge Sarah Hughes, William, McLaughlin Taylor, Jr. and appeal judge Irving Loeb Goldberg, all agreed and declared that the law in Texas was unconstitutional and violated the right to privacy as found in the ninth amendment. Henry Wade appealed the decision to the Supreme Court.
5. The Court's Decision
The decision of the Supreme Court ruled that a woman's right to privacy extended to the option of having an abortion. The court’s decision was a majority vote of 7 to 2. Justice Byron White and William Rehnquist were of the dissenting opinion. The court ruled that Texas law violated the constitutional right to privacy of Jane Roe. The Supreme Court gave the argument that the first, Fourth, Ninth, and the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution protect the "Zone of Privacy" of an individual against the laws of the state. The Court pointed out the rulings in the past cases that highlighted child-rearing, marriage, and contraception as activities that are covered under the "privacy zone" and was broad enough to include a woman’s decision to terminate or not to terminate the pregnancy.
4. Dissenting Opinion
Justices Byron White and William Rehnquist gave their dissenting opinion, and said ‘the decision of the court was an exercise of raw judicial power’. Justice Rehnquist gave different grounds why he differed with other judges. His arguments were that there was no legitimate plaintiff in the case on whom court ruling could apply. He also argued that abortion was not a private act.
3. Changes in Abortion Laws Across the U.S.
In response to the Supreme Court decision, many states decided to limit certain rights to abortion. Some of the laws effected across the US include the requirement of parental consent to procure an abortion for minors, the consent of the spouse laws, the laws that barred state funding for abortions, requisite waiting periods, the requirement that certain informational pamphlets to be read before obtaining an abortion, among many other laws.
2. The American Public's Reaction
The Supreme Court decision triggered protests right away all across the country, polarizing America into "pro-choice" and "pro-life" factions. There were picketing in different parts of the country trying to stop women from accessing abortion clinics, letter writing campaigns to Supreme Court, harassment of abortion doctors, and even threats of murder. The liberals praised the ruling as an essential to women’s equality and reproductive freedom.
1. Precedent for Later Cases, Controversies, and Contentions
Three years later after the landmark decision of Roe v. Wade, an abortion case was once again brought to the Supreme Court in Planned Parenthood v. Danforth, wherein all state laws requiring parental or spousal consent were thrown out. However, in the case of Thornburg v. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the decision was split 5-4, and the ruling struck off all manner of abortion alternatives such as the requirement to keep the records of abortion, the obligation to inform women in regards to parental development, the requirement that the 3rd trimester abortions be performed in a manner to spare the life of the child, and the obligation to educate women on the potential risks of abortions. All of these were seen as violating a woman’s right to privacy.