Roe V Wade 1973 – Landmark decisions by the Supreme Court

Roe V Wade 1973 (Landmark Supreme Court Case)

Roe V Wade marked a turning point not just in the US legal history but also in the history of women’s rights. The court’s ruling in the case shaped the discussion on abortion, giving it a new direction. However, it did not mark the end of the discussion but just reignited a debate which is yet to find its end. Despite having been one of the most controversial cases decided by the Supreme Court, it is also one of the most notable ones. The discussion on abortion is not just related to women’s rights but also to ethics, religion and biology.

The decision came at a time when abortion was banned or restricted severely across most states. It was also when such restrictions were being challenged by the sexual revolutions and feminist movements. Roe V wade was not the most important decision given by the Supreme Court but still it was the one that generated the highest controversy. The decision given by the highest court in this case is still cited most commonly whenever there is a discussion around abortion rights of the women.

The two parties in this case were Norma L McCorvey (also known as Jane Roe) and Henry Wade. The lawsuit was brought on the part of Jane Roe by two graduates of Texas Law School. Jane Roe was a pregnant woman and the case alleged that a law formed by Texas violated her constitutional rights. Roe was a resident of Dallas area in Texas and Henry Wade the Dallas Country district attorney. All the abortions were banned in Texas except the ones that were necessary for saving the life of the mother.  Roe’s claim was that while her life was not in danger still her pregnancy limited her mobility and she was unable to move out of the state. She considered it her right to have a safe abortion. The case was first brought before a Texas Federal Court, and the court ruled that the law violated the constitution. Henry Wade moved to the Supreme Court and appealed against the Texas Federal Court’s decision. The Supreme Court reviewed the case between 1971 and 1972.

In its decision (7-2), the court ruled that the Texas statute violated Roe’s constitutional right to privacy. In this regard the court cited the First, the Fourth, the Ninth and the Fourteenth amendments that protected an individual’s zone of privacy. The court argued that these amendments protected the individual’s right to privacy and cited past cases regarding marriage, contraception and child rearing. All of these activities were included in the zone of privacy. The court also argued that the zone of privacy was broad enough to include a woman’s decision to have or terminate her pregnancy. The decision of abortion was an important decision that has myriad consequences including physical, mental, economic and social.

Since abortion was a private consideration it was protected by the constitution. The court also stated that the laws to regulate abortion required to be sufficiently important to pass the constitutional test. The three most important concerns related to abortion, the court reviewed, were: discouraging illicit sex, protection of women’s health and protection of the prenatal life. The court cancelled the first two concerns as irrelevant and regarding the third it argued that prenatal life could not be considered a person by the constitutional definition. While prenatal life has been regarded as person in some cultures there is no consensus on this view still. So, the Texas law that banned abortion to save all the prenatal life was not sufficiently important due to the contentious view of prenatal life.

Still, the court did not entirely rule against the existing abortion laws. It just forbid the states from ruling any kind of abortion that took place within the first trimester of pregnancy illegal. It allowed states to form only laws that were related reasonably to the mother’s health during the second and third trimesters of pregnancy.   Laws related to the protection of fetus could only be enacted related to the third trimester. Even while the concern is to protect the fetus there should be an exception when the mother’s life is at stake. Additionally, the court stated that since the medical community considers prenatal life after six months of pregnancy to be viable outside the womb, states could form laws protecting prenatal life in the third trimester. Still, mother’s life had to be considered important and between the mother and fetus it is the mother’s life that should be considered the priority. The first trimester, the court entirely left to the doctor and the patient as there was no important reason to regulate it.

Roe V Wade sparked controversy at the time its verdict was given. The controversy has continued till date and the opponents of abortion have criticized the court for its decision legalizing murder of prenatal life. Still, when women’s rights are considered the court gave the women the rightful liberty to make a decision that in its view was strictly private for them. The decision despite all the controversy around it has been hailed by the supporters of the abortion rights. While it has remained difficult to balance the discussion around abortion, Roe V Wade has worked as a first step to tilt in the favor of those who are most affected by it.