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Focus on the Court: 37 Years of Roe v. Wade

Focus on the Court: 37 Years of Roe v. Wade

courtdaylogo.pngToday marks the 37th anniversary of the Supreme Court's landmark decision in Roe v. Wade. As Friday at the RACBlog is our "Focus on the Courts" day, it is only appropriate that we use this time to do a quick review of the Roe decision and of some subsequent Supreme Court decisions on abortion and reproductive rights.

Roe v. Wade (1973)

The case originated in 1970 when Norma L. McCorvey (alias "Jane Roe") became pregnant and with her attorneys Linda Coffee and Sarah Weddington filed a federal district court challenge to Texas law which prohibited abortion. Dallas County District Attorney Henry Wade represented the state of Texas. The district court ruled for McCorvey.

On appeal, the Supreme Court heard oral argument on December 13, 1971 and (in a rather rare move) again on October 11, 1972. The Court issued its 7-2 judgment in McCorvey's favor on January 22, 1973.

This excerpt from an article on NARAL's website describes the salient points of the decision:

"Although Roe invalidated restrictive abortion laws that disregarded women's right to privacy, the Court recognized a state's valid interest in potential life. That is, the Court rejected arguments that the right to choose is absolute and always outweighs the state's interest in imposing limitations. Instead the Court issued a carefully crafted decision that brought the state's interest and the women's right to choose into the balance.

"The Court held that a woman has the right to choose abortion care until fetal viability [about the end of the second trimester], but that the state's interest generally outweighs the woman's right after that point. Accordingly, after viability - the time at which a fetus can survive outside the woman's body - the state may ban any abortion not necessary to preserve a woman's life or health. Indeed 40 states have laws that address post-viability abortion."

Besides Roe, nearly 30 other Supreme Court decisions have further defined or restricted reproductive rights. Here are several of the key judgments and basic summaries from our friends at NARAL Pro-Choice America:

Webster v. Reproductive Health Services (1989)

"By a vote of 5-4, the Court upheld anti-choice provisions of a Missouri statute. Webster was a significant case because for the first time in the 16 years since Roe v. Wade was decided, only a minority of the justices on the Court voted to reaffirm the tenets of Roe."

Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey (1992)

"By a vote of 5-4, the Court reaffirmed the "essential holding" of Roe v. Wade and struck down a provision of Pennsylvania's Abortion Control Act that required women to notify their husbands of their decision to seek abortion care. However, by a vote of 7-2, the Court upheld other provisions of the Act, including a requirement that women seeking abortions be subject to biased counseling and a mandatory delay of at least 24 hours. The Court allowed these provisions to stand under the "undue burden" standard, which overturned Roe's requirement that abortion restrictions be subject to strict scrutiny and opened the floodgates to hundreds of new restrictions on choice in the ensuing years.

Stenberg v. Carhart (2000)

"By a vote of 5-4, the Court narrowly struck down a Nebraska law that could have banned abortion as early as the 12th week in pregnancy. The Court held the law unconstitutional because it had no exception to protect a woman's health, and because it was overly broad. The 5-4 vote in Stenberg was particularly significant because Justice Kennedy, who had voted to reaffirm Roe in Casey, sided with anti-choice Justices in eviscerating a core principle of Roe - that any attempt to restrict abortion care must include an exception to protect a woman's health."

Gonzales v. Carhart and Gonzales v. Planned Parenthood (2007)

"The decisions in these cases marked the first time since Roe v. Wade that the Supreme Court has upheld a ban on an abortion method without an exception for the life and health of the woman. This decision represents a monumental departure from prior cases, and with it the Court effectively eliminated one of Roe v. Wade's core protections: that a woman's health must always be paramount."


The 37 years since Roe v. Wade have seen so many decisions which undermine a woman's right to choose. They serve as a constant reminder of the great power federal judges hold over our reproductive rights. We must remember that each future vacancy in the Supreme Court is both an opportunity to strengthen our reproductive rights and a potential to lose them.


For more information, please contact Legislative Assistant Samuel Lehman 

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