Roe v. Wade: Origin Story, Ruling, & Influence

Roe v. Wade (1973)

Roe v. Wade (1973) | Image: U.S. Supreme Court

Believe it or not: there was a time when abortion was illegal in the country. It was a time when majority of the states across the nation policed it, leaving only a few safe havens in the country where young women could safely have the procedure done. However, that all changed after the Roe v. Wade (1973) Supreme Court case, which saw the distinguished judges rule (in a 7-2 ruling) that abortion was a personal decision of the pregnant woman and doctor up until the first three months of pregnancy.

The case, which saw the plaintiff argue for anti-abortion laws to be struck down specifically in Texas, resulted in states across the nation overhauling their abortion laws in order to comply with the ruling of the Supreme Court.

Here is a quick look back to the origin story, ruling, and influence of the U.S. Supreme Court case of Roe v. Wade (1973) – a landmark case which remains up to this day a very divisive issue. But first, here is a quick summary of the history of abortion laws in the U.S. up until Roe v. Wade (1973).

When was abortion illegal in the United States? – History of the Practice and Policing

Beginning around the 18th century – close to two hundred years before Roe v. Wade (1973) – abortion was pretty much legal.  Back then, the term limit for abortion was pegged around the “quickening” point – a time around the fourth month of pregnancy where the woman could feel the fetus move. To rid the practice off quacks and unscrupulous medicines used to dangerously induce abortions, some states did try to regulate abortion.

Owing to the rise in fatalities, which were often the result of illicit and dangerous drugs, institutions such as the American Medical Association (AMA) started calling for an outright ban on abortion. Their anti-abortion campaigns started around the late 1850s. Opponents of those antiabortionists claimed that the AMA was simply trying to drive out competition (i.e. midwives) from the industry, leaving doctors monopolizing the procedure.

All the way up to the late 19th century, abortion continued to remain largely legal in the U.S.. This was in spite of some anti-abortion campaigners who stated that were abortion allowed to go unchecked, the U.S. risked losing its “native” population, which would in turn lead to immigrants dominating America’s landscape. It is interesting to note that by “native”, those campaigners were referring to white American-born and Protestants.

It was not until when the Catholic Church joined the anti-abortion campaign did abortion start getting criminalized. Around the late 1860s, the Church scolded doctors that engaged in the practice. They stated that abortion, at any term of the pregnancy, was an affront to God. Hence, the Catholic missions and hospitals banned it. In less than five years, the U.S. Congress came out with the Comstock law – a law which criminalized the distribution (through the U.S. mail) of contraceptives and drugs sourly needed for the procedure.

Amidst all the laws and social ridicule associated with abortion, some women’s rights groups continued to fight for what they saw as an infringement on their civil liberties.

In the lead up to Roe v. Wade (1973), there were numerous battles at the courts, where cases typically involved the ban on contraceptives. Abortion campaigners did secure some big decisions in their favor. For example, in 1965, the U.S. Supreme Court partially struck down the Comstock law, allowing contraceptives to be distributed to married couples. The Court’s decision cited how such bans infringed upon people’s rights to privacy, which is guaranteed under the Constitution.

Just about a year before Roe v. Wade, the Court lifted the contraceptive ban completely, giving every adult, regardless of his/her marital status, the right to freely distribute contraceptives.

It must be noted that abortion was legal in U.S. states such as Hawaii, New York, Alaska, and Washington even before Roe v. Wade ruling. The first state to decriminalize it was Hawaii (in 1970). In Hawaii’s case, only residents of the state could access it legally. The Empire State – New York – went a step further and gave access to all persons, regardless of their residential status.

Did you know: According to an estimate from the Guttmacher Institute, there were between 200,000 and 1.2 million annual illegal abortions in the U.S. in the two decades prior to Roe v. Wade? Many of those procedures were done by crooks posing as doctors or midwives. Many women had to endure agonizing self-induced abortions, while others lost their lives during the process.

Who was Roe?

Roe v. Wade

Norma McCorvey (1947-2017)

Norma McCorvey – a Dallas, Texas pregnant woman of around 20 something – found out that abortion in her state of Texas was illegal unless on the grounds that it be done to protect the pregnant woman’s life. Born in very bad economic situation, McCorvey had a very troubling upbringing. And as she could not bear the thought of putting up her another child for adoption, she decided it to have an abortion.  The young woman had had two kids and put all two of them for adoption.

Owing to her financial situation, she could not afford the cost of moving abroad to have the procedure done. Neither did she have the amount of money needed by a qualified doctor in Texas to perform the abortion secretly in her state. There were countless women like McCorvey who found themselves in similar or even worse situations.

Two very brave lawyers in Texas came to the aid of Mccorvey and helped her take on the state of Texas at the Supreme Court of the United States. Her lawyers purposely chose the moniker “Jane Roe” in order to shield the Norma McCorvey from excessive publicity and scruntiny that came with the case. Roe and her lawyers wanted the Court to grant her absolute right to abort a pregnancy using whatever means and at any time she deemed fit.

Roe v. Wade

Sarah Weddington was one of the two attorneys for the plaintiff. Image: September 18, 1978

Who was Wade?

Henry Wade was the district attorney of Dallas County. Because the lawsuit was against the state, Wade served as the defendant in the case. Wade had quite a reputation, and if anything at all, he was probably the best defendant in the case.

Roe v. Wade

Henry Wade (1914 – 2001) – the district attorney of Dallas County

Did you know:  District Attorney Wade was part of the prosecution that handled the 1964 case involving Jack Ruby – the man who murdered JFK’s assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald?

Roe v. Wade (1973): Summary and Ruling

In the lead up to the showdown at the Supreme Court, a Texas district court had passed a ruling that stated how illegal Texas’ abortion ban was. According to that ruling of June 1970, Texas’ law infringed upon women’s rights to privacy. Unsatisfied with the ruling, Wade stated that Texas was not going to comply with the court ruling and that the state wont desist from punishing doctors engaged in abortions.

So on it went through the judicial hierarchy to be appealed at the nation’s highest court – the U.S. Supreme Court. In the course of those court proceedings, the plaintiff McCovey had given birth and gone on to place the child for adoption.

After close to three years since the district court’s ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court came out with its verdict on the matter. In a 7-2 decision, the honorable judges struck down Texas’ ban on abortion. Women across the country had earned the right to carry terminate their pregnancies within the first trimester (i.e. the first three months). The decision, which was mainly written by Justice Harry Blackmun, stated that Texas’ ban (as well as similar bans across the U.S.) was in fact unconstitutional as it violated women’s right to privacy – a right which is protected by the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Why the Court based its ruling on three trimesters

Roe v. Wade

Justice Harry Blackmun, the justice who wrote the majority opinion in Roe v. Wade

It is always a very tricky thing when it comes to the state interfering in issues of health care and personal freedoms. In arriving at its ruling, the Court broke down pregnancy into three trimesters, where each trimester comprised three months on the average.

The distinguished Supreme Court judges on the case must have factored into consideration of renowned doctors, biologists, and psychologists in assessing the point in time when the fetus can be regarded as a human being. This issue was perhaps the thorniest of all. Is a fetus really a human being? And if it is, surely it is entitled to all the inalienable rights and protection we persons living in the United States receive from our Constitution.

The majority ruling stated that the end of the first trimester was the point at which the fetus was capable of having a “meaningful life outside the mother’s womb”.

In the second trimester, the state had regulatory power; thus it could intervene if ample medical evidence showed that the woman’s health was at risk were an abortion to take place.

In the final trimester, the judges’ ruling gave the state powers to ban abortion if ample evidence shows that the fetus could thrive on its own outside the womb. However, on no occasion, should woman’s health be compromised in order to save the fetus.

Roe v. Wade: Aftermath

About two decades after the landmark case, the plaintiff made a U-turn by becoming a Catholic and stating her complete opposition towards abortion. The authenticity of her claim still remains questionable, as rumors off her receiving support from anti-abortion campaigners surfaced.

In spite of the decision, there have been some states – those with strong anti-abortion groups – that have tried to circumvent the Supreme Court’s decision by coming out with crafty laws to discourage abortion. Some states have flagrantly reduced the spending that goes into community programs that support abortion.

In Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey (1992), restrictions on abortion were deemed unconstitutional if those restrictions imposed unnecessary weight on the pregnant woman not yet in her first trimester (i.e. before the fetus is viable).

Gonzales v. Carhart (2007) – the federal Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act (2003) was challenged at the Court. The judges’ deemed the act as an infringement upon the rights of women. What does the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003 say? The act made it illegal for women to use an abortion technique known as intact dilation and evacuation. It is worth mentioning that the technique was hardly used by doctors or medical practitioners in performing abortion.

Then in 2016, there was the Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt. In this Supreme Court case, the judges made reference to the 1992 Casey decision and quashed a couple of provisions in the state of Texas’ law that forced abortion clinics to maintain standards similar to that of ambulatory surgical centres. The other provision was that abortion doctors had have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital.

June Medical Services L.L.C. v. Russo (2020) – In this case, the Court cited a precedent – the Whole Woman’s Health case of 2016 – before it struck down an unconstitutional law in Louisiana which was almost similar to the ones quashed in Texas.

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