In 1969, before the case of Roe v. Wade ever reached the Supreme Court, a Texas woman, Norma L. McCorvey discovered she was pregnant with a child she did not wish to carry to term. However, abortion was illegal in the state of Texas unless the pregnancy was a result of rape. Women could not obtain a legal abortion without a police report documenting the alleged rape or incest. McCorvey was eventually referred to attorneys Linda Coffee and Sarah Weddington. In 1970, the two attorneys filed suit in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas on behalf of McCorvey, who took the alias Jane Roe. Representing the State of Texas was Dallas County District Attorney Henry Wade.
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In June 1970, the District Court unanimously declared the Texas law making abortion illegal unconstitutional because it violated the right to privacy guaranteed in the Ninth Amendment. Roe v. Wade reached the Supreme Court on appeal later that year. After several years of hearing arguments from both sides, the Court issued its decision in January 1973, in favor of Roe. The Court decided that abortion was a fundamental right granted by the United States Constitution included with the guarantee of personal privacy. Any state law aimed at restricting abortion would face strict scrutiny from the Supreme Court and any legislation enacted would have to be well justified.
Arguing in defense of abortion restrictions for Texas was attorney Jay Floyd, who was replaced by Texas Assistant Attorney General Robert C. Flowers in October 1972, and Weddington continued to represent Roe. Arguments for Roe’s case focused on women’s rights guaranteed by the Bill of Rights and the US Constitution. It was argued that a woman has the right to terminate her pregnancy and it is improper for a State to deny any individual the right to privacy. A woman has the right to personal, marital, familial, and sexual privacy, which includes terminating a pregnancy. It was also argued that a fetus is not a person, therefore it cannot be said to have any legal “right to life”. Arguments on Roe’s side claimed that the Texas law was intrusive and unconstitutional, and should be overturned.
Arguments being made for the side of Wade and the state of Texas said that the State has a duty to protect prenatal life. It was argued that life is present at the moment of conception, unborn fetuses are people, and as such, are entitled to protection under the Constitution. It was argued that the Texas law was constitutional and should be upheld.
Justice Harry Blackmun was the author of the Supreme Court’s opinion on the case and continued to research and work on the case even in the recesses between arguments. In his majority opinion, Blackmun stated that in almost all references in the United States Constitution, use of the word “person” is only applicable post-natally. “None indicates, with any assurance, that is has any possible prenatal application.” Blackmun argued to find a balance between the rights of pregnant women and the interest of protection the “potentiality of human life” as well as the mother’s health. His decision, agreed with by the majority of the Court, centered on the development of the fetus throughout the pregnancy. Blackmun stated that during the first trimester of a pregnancy, a woman had an unrestricted right to an abortion. In the second trimester, States could regulate abortions as necessary to protect the mother if it was deemed that carrying out the pregnancy would put her life at risk. By the third trimester, the State’s interest in protecting the potential rights and life of the fetus was enough to justify restrictions on abortions.
Justice William Rehnquist dissented the opinion of the Court’s majority. He argued that the decision and regulation of abortion was something that should continue to happen at the level of state legislation. He believed that the people should give their opinion and input to their elected representatives, and that the states should make the policies individually. Rehnquist did not agree with the Court’s interpretation of the 14th Amendment when they decided it encompassed the right to abortion. He argued that most of the same laws that were in place when the Amendment was drafted were still in place during the Roe v. Wade case, so how could these laws suddenly be ignored or turned to be at odds with the 14th Amendment?
Personally, my opinion falls somewhere in the middle ground of the two arguments. I believe that life begins at conception and that abortion should be regulated at any stage of the pregnancy. However, a woman does have the right to choose what happens to her own body. It’s a difficult decision to make, trying to choose between which person’s life becomes the most important. A woman should be responsible for her own body, but she should not take the life of her child to do that. Sex is not always had to produce children, but that is the consequence and if one is not mature enough to realize that, they are probably not mature enough for sexual intercourse. The issue arises of children conceived through rape, incest, and other traumatic circumstances; carrying that child to term could be detrimental to the mother’s psychological wellbeing. When the mother’s personal health is put at risk by the pregnancy, she also has the right to choose her life over that of the child.
While I personally disagree with abortion and would choose adoption or to keep a child, I believe that women have the right to decide for themselves whether or not to carry a pregnancy to term. I agree with the trimester restrictions Blackmun laid out as the best way to regulate abortion.
In January 1973, the Court ruled that a right to privacy under the 14th Amendment extended to a woman's decision to have an abortion, but that right must be regulated by two things: protecting prenatal life and protecting women's health. It was also decided that the as the pregnancy went on, these interests became a bigger deal and third trimester abortions were based on viability, or the fetus’s ability to survive outside the mother.
In the 40 years since the Supreme Court’s decision, the debate has never ceased. The issue of abortion is still a topic of discussion and debate for politicians and many advocacy groups on both sides. Some people want to make regulation of abortion the duty of the individual states again, taking the decision away from the federal government. There are groups pushing to make abortion illegal again at the state level. While some states have been working toward making abortion illegal again, de-funding Planned Parenthood, and other anti-abortion strategies, there are other states that have ruled to uphold the decision of Roe v. Wade, and keep abortion legal within the state, even if it is repealed in the Court.
Since the Roe v. Wade decision, women have had easier and safer access to abortions and prenatal care. Clinics became incredibly common where the sole purpose was to provide abortion and the care necessary surrounding the procedure. With the rise of social acceptance of birth control and contraceptives, as well as the Court decision, abortion began to lose some of the stigma and become a cornerstone of women’s rights movements. Feminine care has become more widely available. Women have easier access to well-checks and annual gynecologist exams, breast exams, STD testing, access to birth control and contraceptives, prenatal care such as ultrasounds and visits with an obstetrician, as well as the service of abortions.
The decision of Roe v. Wade became a guideline for future cases. It was looked at in deciding cases such as Planned Parenthood v. Casey in 1992, Webster v. Reproductive Health Services, and Stenberg v. Carhart. Even the Supreme Court of Canada used the US Supreme Court’s rulings as grounds to find their federal laws restricting abortions unconstitutional in 1988.
The debate over regulating and restricting abortion will most likely never end. There will always be those who believe that human life begins at conception and that there is a person with rights to protect at the very moment of fertilization. There will always be those who argue that it is a woman’s right to protect her own life and make the decision of what happens within her body. The argument will always go back and forth between whether it is up to the individual states or whether it is the duty of the federal government to regulate the availability of abortions. Roe v. Wade was one of the first decisions made on a very hot topic that will likely not be settled any time in the near future.