The Encyclopedia Britannica explains the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade and the parties involved.
1 What is Roe v. Wade?
It is a legal case in which the U.S. Supreme Court on January 22, 1973, ruled 7–2 that unduly restrictive state regulation of abortion is unconstitutional. In a majority opinion written by Justice Harry A. Blackmun, the court held that a set of Texas statutes criminalizing abortion in most instances violated a woman’s constitutional right of privacy, which it found to be implicit in the liberty guarantee of the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment (“…nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law”).
2 Who was Roe?
In 1969, Norma McCorvey, a Texas woman in her early 20s, sought to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. McCorvey, who had grown up in difficult, impoverished circumstances, previously had given birth twice and given up both children for adoption. At the time of McCorvey’s pregnancy in 1969 abortion was legal in Texas—but only for the purpose of saving a woman’s life.
While American women with the financial means could obtain abortions by traveling to other countries where the procedure was safe and legal, or pay a large fee to a U.S. doctor willing to secretly perform an abortion, those options were out of reach to McCorvey and many other women. After trying unsuccessfully to get an illegal abortion, McCorvey was referred to Texas attorneys Linda Coffee and Sarah Weddington, who were interested in challenging anti-abortion laws.
In court documents, McCorvey became known as “Jane Roe.”
3 Who was Wade?
Henry Wade was the district attorney for Dallas County, Texas where McCorvey lived.
In June 1970, a Texas district court ruled that the state’s abortion ban was illegal because it violated a constitutional right to privacy. Afterward, Wade declared he’d continue to prosecute doctors who performed abortions.
Attorneys filed a lawsuit on behalf of McCorvey and all the other women “who were or might become pregnant and want to consider all options,” against Wade.
Earlier, in 1964, Wade was in the national spotlight when he prosecuted Jack Ruby, who killed Lee Harvey Oswald, the assassin of President John F. Kennedy.
4 What else did the Supreme Court do in Roe v. Wade?
The court divided pregnancy into three trimesters, and declared that the choice to end a pregnancy in the first trimester was solely up to the woman. In the second trimester, the government could regulate abortion, although not ban it, in order to protect the mother’s health.
In the third trimester, the state could prohibit abortion to protect a fetus that could survive on its own outside the womb, except when a woman’s health was in danger.
5What is the case behind the leaked Supreme Court draft opinion?
In May 2021 the Supreme Court agreed to review in its October 2021 term a lower court’s decision to strike down a Mississippi state law, adopted in 2018, that banned most abortions after the 15th week of pregnancy, well before the point of fetal viability. Although the law was plainly unconstitutional under Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, Mississippi lawmakers passed the measure in the hope that an inevitable legal challenge would eventually make its way to the Supreme Court, where a conservative majority of justices would overturn or drastically reduce the scope of those decisions. The single question that the court agreed to consider in the case, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, was whether all pre-viability abortions are unconstitutional.