The celebrated and despised Supreme Court case on abortion
The issue of abortion raises significant tension in the United States. The issue separates certain religious groups, claiming a fetus’ life has a value equal to that of a born person, from others who place a higher value on the right of a woman to control whether or not she is pregnant. In 1973, the Supreme Court weighed in, as it was presented with a case of a woman wishing to end her pregnancy and a state law preventing the woman from doing so.
Our report explains the Roe v. Wade court decision in an infographic.
In 1971, Norma McCorvey (known in court documents as “Jane Roe”) filed a lawsuit against the attorney general of Texas, Henry Wade. McCorvey argued a Texas law banning abortion, which had been enforced against her, was unconstitutional. The Texas law only allowed abortions if necessary to save the woman’s life.
McCorvey (Roe) based her argument on the word “liberty” contained in the due process clauses of the Constitution’s 5th and the 14th Amendments. The due process clause says that no person can be deprived of “life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”
McCorvey’s use of the due process clause to guarantee her the right to an abortion highlights a controversy in legal jurisprudence. Note the word “process” in the clause. Process and substance are different in law. Some argue the due process clause should not be used for defining liberty. In other words, the substance of liberty cannot be determined through a provision that relates to process. For more information on this controversy (a confusing topic in law), see our infographic explainer on Substantive Due Process.
Years later: Jane Roe’s Change of Heart
Norma McCorvey – “Roe” herself – the woman who represents the decision – had a surprising change of heart on the issue of abortion later in life. McCorvey started a “pro-life” organization “Roe No More” in 1997 and even filed in court in 2003 to try to have Roe v. Wade overturned. The attempt was unsuccessful.
The future – changes in medical science
“Pro-choice” advocates may have a legitimate concern about the ruling as medical science advances. The Supreme Court ruled that the point of viability is the essential point at which the state’s interest in prenatal life outweighs the liberty interest of the woman. But when medical science advances to bring that point of viability to progressively earlier times in the pregnancy, will the abortion bans creep up too? See this article from the Constitution Center for a discussion.
More Information about Roe vs Wade
CNN’s “Fast Facts” on the case, including a legal timeline.