The History of Roe v. Wade

Photo courtesy of Lorie Shaull, Wikimedia Commons. Norma McCorvey (Jane Roe) and her lawyer, Gloria Allred, on the steps of the Supreme Court in 1989.

By Abby Ramirez

With the recent confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett as the latest Supreme Court justice, Roe v. Wade has become a hot topic in the United States. Whether they support or denounce her nomination, Americans from all corners of the country are anxious to see whether the case will be overturned in the coming years. 

Since its passing, Roe v. Wade has become so synonymous with women’s liberation and the right to have a legal abortion that many are unaware of the history behind the landmark Supreme Court case. 

Prior to the late nineteenth century, all abortions were legal. Many women terminated their pregnancies through the use of drugs. Although there was widespread opposition to this, the anti-abortion movement did not fully emerge until the American Medical Association called for nationwide ban. Slowly, their movement gained momentum and by 1873, transporting “obscene and illicit” materials, such as contraceptives, became illegal under the Comstock Act. 

However, as America grew into a more progressive country, state governments and the Supreme Court began to work towards granting women their bodily autonomy once again. In Griswold v. Connecticut (1965) and Eisenstadt v. Baird (1972), the ban on the sales of contraceptives to married couples and single men was lifted, and the United States v. One Package overturned the Comstock Act.

These cases and the legalization of abortion in Hawaii, New York, Washington, and Alaska made it seem as if the tides were turning, but for many women, they were not.

After giving birth to two children and giving them up for adoption, Norma McCorvey sought to abort her third pregnancy in 1969. Texas state law declared that abortions could only be carried out if the woman’s life was in danger, however, or if the child was conceived as a result of incest or rape. Unable to pay for the travel expenses and procedure in another state or country, McCorvey attempted an illegal and unsafe abortion that was ultimately unsuccessful. 

Texas attorneys Linda Coffee and Sarah Weddington filed a lawsuit on behalf of McCorvey, who took up the legal pseudonym “Jane Roe,” and all other women “who were or might become pregnant and want to consider all options.” Despite opposition from Dallas District Attorney, Henry Wade, the Texas district court ruled that their current abortion laws violated the privacy and Constitutional rights of women under the Ninth Amendment. In other words, because rights to an abortion are not explicitly stated in the Constitution, they ultimately belong to the people, not the government. After the decision, Wade swore that he would continue to persecute doctors who performed abortions, and the case was taken to the Supreme Court. 

The nine Supreme Court justices determined that the first, fourth, ninth, and fourteenth amendments create “zones of privacy,” and that contraception was a right that fell under these “zones.” So, in a 7-2 majority, they decided that, under the Constitution, the zone was “broad enough to encompass a woman’s decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy.” However, the fundamental right to an abortion still had the potential to be limited. 

As a part of their decision, the Supreme Court created general guidelines based on each trimester of a woman’s pregnancy in order to weigh the moral dilemma between the woman and life of the fetus. In the first trimester, the mother has the right to decide. In the second trimester, the government could regulate abortion, but could not ban it. Finally, in the last trimester, a state could prohibit an abortion to protect the life of the fetus unless the woman’s life was in danger. 

Although Roe v. Wade set a precedent by granting women bodily autonomy, it was modified only 19 years later in Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey. With a 5-4 majority, the Supreme Court adopted additional, more restrictive provisions from the Pennsylvania state legislature. Now using the “undue burden” system, rather than strict scrutiny analysis, any provision of law that had a purpose or effect that placed “a substantial obstacle in the path of a woman seeking an abortion before the fetus attains viability” would be invalid. 

Under this change, notifying the father before the procedure remained optional. However, after the decision was made, women would have to give consent to an abortion 24 hours beforehand, wait 24 hours to receive one, and have consent from one parent if she was a minor. 

The majority of Americans at the time supported Roe v. Wade. According to Pew Research Center, 60 percent of Americans believed that abortions should be legal in all or most cases in 1995, just three years after Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey. As of 2019, the approval and disapproval ratings have only changed slightly, with 61 percent of Americans still supporting legal abortions. However, in the last decade, Planned Parenthood reports that there were 424 separate restrictions by states that “seek to shame, pressure, and punish people who decide to have an abortion.” 

With individual states beginning to place tougher restrictions on abortion, Brett Kavanaugh’s seat in the Supreme Court, and Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation, the possibility of women losing their right to choose what they do with their bodies is becoming more of a possibility. If Roe v. Wade is overturned, one-third of all women in America would lose access to an abortion, and the procedure’s safety record of over 99 percent will inevitably drop due to an increased number of unsafe, illegal abortions, according to Planned Parenthood.

Although the future of Roe v. Wade remains unknown, it’s legacy and the liberation it gave women will continue to echo through history, both past and present.

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