Roe v. Wade
landmark case -- women's right choose abortion


Roe v. Wade was a 1973 landmark case in which the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that state laws could not forbid a woman to have an abortion during the first three months of pregnancy. The court also ruled that during the second three months, a state could regulate abortions only to protect women's health. Before Roe v. Wade, many U.S. states prohibited abortions in almost all circumstances.

The court based its decision in part on the principle that the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution created a "zone of privacy" into which a state could not intrude. Seven of the court's nine justices supported the decision, which was written by Justice Harry A. Blackmun.

Roe v. Wade arose after Norma McCorvey, an unmarried carnival worker, was denied an abortion in Texas in 1969. Texas law permitted abortions only when the woman's life was in danger. McCorvey sued Henry Wade, the Dallas County district attorney, in an attempt to prove that the law was unconstitutional. McCorvey was called Jane Roe in the case to conceal her identity.

In Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court divided the nine months of pregnancy into three stages called trimesters. It ruled that a state cannot regulate abortions in the first trimester, except for requiring that the doctor be licensed by the state. The court ruled that during the second trimester, the state may prevent a woman from having an abortion, but only to protect the woman's health. It ruled that in the third trimester, the state may prohibit abortions entirely, except when an abortion is needed to save the woman's life. The court based this last decision on two considerations: (1) during the third trimester, the fetus is more likely to survive outside the mother; and (2)abortion is a serious medical procedure during the third trimester.

Roe v. Wade soon became the subject of a great national controversy. Some people considered it an important advance toward equality for women because it gave women the right to choose when and whether to have a child. However, people who opposed abortion--particularly those who feel that life begins at conception--strongly disagreed with the court's decision.

After Roe v. Wade, the number of legal abortions performed in the United States rose. Many states enacted new laws designed to restrict abortions, and the Supreme Court had to decide whether some of these new laws conflicted with the principles of Roe v. Wade. In some cases, the court allowed restrictions to stand. But it also upheld the basic principles of Roe v. Wade.

Contributor: Susan Gluck Mezey, Ph.D., Prof., Department of Political Science, Loyola Univ.


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