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Roe v. Wade 1973

Supreme Court Decision


Updated January 13, 2014

Roe v. Wade 1973

Roe v. Wade

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Supreme Court Decision:

On January 22, 1973, Justice Harry Blackmun wrote the majority opinion for the 7-2 Court which ruled in favor "sensitive and emotional nature of the abortion controversy," Justice Blackmun read his majority opinion in the Court chamber filled with reporters.


Who Voted For and Against the Roe v. Wade Decision:

  • The Majority: Harry Blackmun, William J. Brennan, Chief Justice Warren Burger, William O. Douglas, Thurgood Marshall, Lewis Powell and Potter Stewart. The majority opinion was written by Harry Blackmun. Concurring opinions were written by Potter Stewart, Warren Burger, and William O. Douglas.
  • The Dissent: William Rehnquist and Byron White. Dissenting opinions were written by both William Rehnquist and Byron White.


The Basis of the Roe v. Wade Decision:

This historic Supreme Court decision overturned a Texas interpretation of abortion law and made abortion legal in the United States. The ruling, based on the right to privacy, recognized the right of women to choose to have an abortion during the first 6 months (2 trimesters) of pregnancy when the fetus has little chance of survival outside the womb and to seek an abortion without unreasonable interference from the state. Yet, it also allowed for state to restrict abortions during the last trimester (when a fetus could live outside the womb), except in situations where the mother's life or health is at risk. This ruling confirmed the principle that the state is concerned with both the health of the woman and the life of the fetus. As per Justice Blackmun's opinion of the Court:
"The State retains a definite interest in protecting the woman's own health and safety when an abortion is proposed at a late stage of pregnancy. Only when the life of the pregnant mother herself is at stake, balanced against the life she carries within her, should the interest of the embryo or fetus not prevail...and...the State has still another important and legitimate interest in protecting its interest in the potentiality of human life...the 'compelling' point is at viability. This is so because the fetus then presumably has the capability of meaningful life outside the mother's womb. State regulation protective of fetal life after viability thus has both logical and biological justifications."

The Court had to determine if the right to choose to terminate pregnancy was indeed a fundamental liberty protected by the Ninth and Fourteenth Amendment. Justice Blackmun concluded that since abortion was allowed throughout common law, it could be considered a protected liberty, and since medical advances had made abortion safe when properly carried out, no reason existed to continue the abortion laws.

The court then asserted that abortion is a fundamental right under the U.S. Constitution and prohibiting abortion would violate the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment (which protects against state actions to deny the right to privacy, including a woman's qualified right to terminate her pregnancy). The court determined that a non-viable fetus (one that cannot survive outside the womb) is not a person according to the terms set forth in section one of the Fourteenth Amendment, so due process rights do not apply to the unborn. As per Justice Blackmun:

"This right of privacy, whether it be founded in the Fourteenth Amendment's concept of personal liberty and restrictions upon state action, as we feel it is, or, as the District Court determined, in the Ninth Amendment's reservation of rights to the people, is broad enough to encompass a woman's decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy. The detriment that the State would impose upon the pregnant woman by denying this choice altogether is apparent. Specific and direct harm medically diagnosable even in early pregnancy may be involved. Maternity, or additional offspring, may force upon the woman a distressful life and future. Psychological harm may be imminent. Mental and physical health may be taxed by child care. There is also the distress, for all concerned, associated with the unwanted child, and there is the problem of bringing a child into a family already unable, psychologically and otherwise, to care for it. In other cases, as in this one, the additional difficulties and continuing stigma of unwed motherhood may be involved. All these are factors the woman and her responsible physician necessarily will consider in consultation."

In their dissent, Rehnquist disagreed that a medical abortion fell under the right of privacy. White believed the Court had wrongly considered a mother's convenience or whim over the "life or potential life of the fetus."


The Aftermath of the Roe v. Wade Decision:

The Roe vs. Wade decision invalidated all state laws that limited a woman's access to abortion during the first trimester of pregnancy. Nineteen states needed to rework their abortion laws following the Roe v. Wade decision while 31 states (including Texas) had their strict anti-abortion laws entirely struck down. State laws limiting such access during the second trimester were upheld only when the restrictions were for the purpose of protecting the health of the pregnant woman.


Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113; U.S. Supreme Court. Accessed: January 12, 2010. http://supreme.justia.com/us/410/113/case.html

McCorvey, Norma. (1994) . I Am Roe: My Life, Roe v. Wade, and Freedom of Choice. New York: Harper-Collins.

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