United States Supreme Court
Argued: December 13, 1971 Decided: January 22, 1973
Roe v. Wade (1973) ruled unconstitutional a state law that banned abortions except to save the life of the mother. The Court ruled that the states were forbidden from outlawing or regulating any aspect of abortion performed during the first trimester of pregnancy, could only enact abortion regulations reasonably related to maternal health in the second and third trimesters, and could enact abortion laws protecting the life of the fetus only in the third trimester. Even then, an exception had to be made to protect the life of the mother. Controversial from the moment it was released, Roe v. Wade politically divided the nation more than any other recent case and continues to inspire heated debates, politics, and even violence today (“the culture wars”). Though by no means the Supreme Court’s most important decision, Roe v. Wade remains its most recognized.
Because abortions lie within a pregnant woman’s “zone of privacy,” the abortion decision “and its effectuation” are fundamental rights that are protected by the Constitution from regulation by the states, so laws regulating abortion must be sufficiently “important.” Was Texas’s law sufficiently important to pass constitutional muster? The Court reviewed the history of abortion laws, from ancient Greece to contemporary America, and therein found three justifications for banning abortions: “a Victorian social concern to discourage illicit sexual conduct”; protecting the health of women; and protecting prenatal life. The Court rejected the first two justifications as irrelevant given modern gender roles and medical technology. As for the third justification, the Court argued that prenatal life was not within the definition of “persons” as used and protected in the U.S. Constitution and that America’s criminal and civil laws only sometimes regard fetuses as persons deserving protection. Culturally, while some groups regard fetuses as people deserving full rights, no consensus exists. The Court ruled that Texas was thus taking one “view” of many. Protecting all fetuses under this contentious “view” of prenatal life was not sufficiently important to justify the state’s banning of almost all abortions.
• Some 1.06 million abortions were performed in 2011, down from 1.21 million abortions in 2008, a decline of 13%.
• Women who have never been married account for one-third of abortions in America.
• Less than 1% of all abortions take place because of rape and/or incest.
Women give an average of 3.7 reasons why they are seeking an abortion including the following:
• 21% Inadequate finances
• 21% Not ready for responsibility
• 16% Woman’s life would be changed too much
• 12% Problems with relationships, unmarried
• 11% Too young and/or immature
• 8% Children are grown; she has all she wants
• 3% Baby has possible health problems
• <1% Pregnancy caused by rape/incest
• 4% Other