Roe v. Wade
The U.S. Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade was decided decades ago – in 1973 – but the debate surrounding it continues today.
The landmark case established that the constitutional clause promising privacy applies to women seeking to terminate pregnancies. The Roe decision limited states’ abilities to enact laws restricting abortions for the first portion of a pregnancy but compromised with conservatives by giving a nod to viability of a fetus. Under this compromise states could create laws limiting abortions during the last trimester of a pregnancy.
The U.S. Supreme Court has jurisdiction over questions of constitutionality of state laws, but in this case it did more than test the law of the state where the suit originated, it set a high bar for states seeking to restrict a woman’s access to abortion.
Most states had abortion laws by 1900, many of which allowed the procedure in cases of rape and incest. Prosecution of individual women was rare as authorities often sought to shut down abortion providers by interrogating women.
In 1969 a young woman from Texas named Linda McCovey sought an abortion in a variety of ways: by saying she was raped and even by approaching an illegal clinic. In the end she ended up giving birth but connected with women’s rights attorneys Sarah Weddington and Linda Coffee and her suit testing the constitutionality of Texas’ restrictive abortion law was filed under the pseudonym Roe to protect McCovey’s privacy. The defendant was Dallas district attorney Henry Wade.
A panel of appellate judges in Texas agreed with Roe that the state’s prohibition against elective abortion was unconstitutional, citing the Ninth Amendment to the Constitution. The decision was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court and argued twice due to replacement of two justices partway through heairngs.
Justices of the Supreme Court eventually voted 7-2 in favor of Roe, but cited the Fourteenth Amendment rather than the Ninth as it could be more broadly applied to fundamental rights rather than the right to privacy. States thereafter had to establish a “compelling interest” in any attempts to limit access to abortions.
In 1992, Planned Parenthood challenged the trimester structure that the Supreme Court allowed for states to use in restricting late term abortions. In the Supreme Court case Planned Parenthood v. Casey the organization successfully argued to strike down the strict trimester limits on abortions, arguing that a “viability” clause should replace the trimester restriction.