Roe v. Wade

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Norma McCorvey ( aka Jane Roe)*
Sarah Weddington, lawyer **

 

Background:
Roe v. Wade was a class action suit that started in the Texas courts in March 1970. It was brought by Sarah Weddington, a law student, on the behalf of Norma McCorvey (alias Jane Roe) and the pregnant women of Texas. Norma McCorvey was a young unwed pregnant woman in 1970 living in Texas. She sought abortions from numerous doctors but under Texas laws was denied an abortion. This case tested the constitutionality of those Texas anti-abortions laws claiming that they were unconstitutionally vague and violated rights guaranteed under the First, Fourth, Fifth, Ninth, and Fourteenth Amendments. It went to the Supreme Court and the laws were overturned in a 7-2 decision with Justices White and Rehnquist dissenting. This case was monumental because it effectively legalized abortion during the first trimester in the United States.

Decision:
Justice Harry Blackmun wrote the majority opinion in this case. In this opinion, he discussed the historical motives behind the type laws and the lack of current applicably of them or unconstitutionality. These motives were Victorian mores discouraging sexual promiscuity, the high mortality rate for mothers undergoing abortions and the interest of the State to protect life. The first two reasons were not considered applicable because “the Texas statues are over broad in protecting it (social mores) since it fails to distinguish between married and unwed mothers” and that “abortion in early pregnancy, that is, prior to the end of the first trimester, although not without its risk, is now relatively safe.” The third condition, the court ruled was unconstitutional. This was because of the right to privacy found in the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and its extensive precedence in the courts. “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 court however, found that some restriction must be able to exist and so created a trimester timeline of regulations. No regulations were permitted in the first trimester. In the second trimester, regulations could exist “in ways reasonably related to maternal health.” In the last trimester, states were free to regulate it in anyway it determines as long as a clause exists allowing an exception for the protection of the mother’s health. At that time, not until the third trimester was the fetus considered viable.

Reaction:
This decision creates widespread protest and the creation of a strong pro-life movement. Protest was increased by the Supreme Court decision the same day on Doe v. Bolton, 410 U.S. 179, that expanded the definition of “health” for the required mother’s health exemption clauses of anti-abortion laws and regulations to include "all factors" that affect the woman, including "physician, emotional, psychological, familial, and the woman's age." This case caused decades of legal, legislative, and political battles that are still ongoing today.

Court Decision

Audio Recording of Excerpts of the Lawyer's Arguments

* Source for Norma McCorvey Photo

** Source for Sarah Weddington Photo

Last Updated 12/17/04
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