Abortions were made legal across the United States in a landmark 1973 Supreme Court ruling, often referred to as the Roe v Wade case.
The momentous decision is back in the spotlight as the U.S. Senate holds confirmation hearings on a new Supreme Court judge.
President Donald Trump has appointed Judge Amy Coney Barrett.
Justice Barrett’s approval would cement a Conservative 6-3 majority on the nine-member Supreme Court, shifting its ideological balance for decades to come.
Abortion has been a lightning rod for public opinion in the United States for decades, and activists on both sides believe it is a pivotal moment.
What is Roe v Wade?
The 1973 Supreme Court ruling legalized abortion in the United States.
By a seven-to-two vote, the court judges ruled that governments did not have the power to ban abortions.
The court’s judgment was based on the ruling that a woman’s right to terminate her pregnancy fell under the freedom of personal choice in family matters, as protected by the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
The decision came after a 25-year-old unmarried woman, Norma McCorvey under the pseudonym “Jane Roe,” challenged criminal abortion laws in Texas which prohibited abortion as unconstitutional, except in cases where the mother’s life was in danger.
Henry Wade was the Texas attorney general who championed the anti-abortion law.
Ms McCorvey first filed the case in 1969. She was pregnant with her third child and claimed she had been raped. But the case was dismissed and she was forced to give birth.
However, in 1973 her appeal was taken to the United States Supreme Court where she was represented by Sarah Weddington, a Dallas lawyer.
- Woman behind abortion decision paid to retract
Her case was heard on the same day as that of a 20-year-old Georgian woman, Sandra Bensing.
They argued that the abortion laws in Texas and Georgia violate the U.S. Constitution by violating women’s right to privacy. They won their case.
How has this case changed women’s rights?
The case created the “quarterly” system which:
- gives American women an absolute right to abortion in the first three months of pregnancy
- allows some government regulation during the second trimester of pregnancy
- states that states may restrict or prohibit abortions in the last trimester as the fetus approaches the point where it could live outside the womb
Roe v Wade also established that in the last trimester, a woman can only get an abortion despite any legal prohibition if doctors certify that it is necessary to save her life or health.
What restrictions on abortion have since been introduced?
In almost half a century since Roe v Wade, anti-abortion activists have regained lost ground.
In 1980, the United States Supreme Court upheld a law prohibiting the use of federal funds for abortion except when necessary to save a woman’s life.
Then, in 1989, he approved other restrictions, including allowing states to ban abortions in public clinics or by state employees.
The biggest impact came from the Supreme Court’s decision in Planned Parenthood v Casey in 1992.
While upholding the Roe v Wade ruling, it also established that states can restrict abortions even in the first trimester for non-medical reasons.
The new laws must not place an “undue burden” on women seeking abortion services. However, it is the woman and not the authorities who must prove that regulation is harmful.
As a result, many states have now put in place restrictions such as requirements that young pregnant women involve their parents or a judge in their abortion decision. Others have introduced waiting periods between a woman’s first visit to an abortion clinic and the actual procedure.
The result of these restrictions is that many women must travel further afield to have an abortion, often beyond state borders, and pay more for them. According to the pro-choice movement, poor women are the most penalized by these restrictions.
- Women who seek abortions outside the law
When could Roe v Wade be considered again?
The court can only tackle Roe v Wade if it takes a case that allows it to review federal laws protecting the process.
That’s why anti-abortion politicians in states like Alabama, Georgia, and Ohio have introduced severely restrictive laws and even abortion bans they know are unconstitutional.
They hope to force a legal challenge that ultimately ends up in the Supreme Court.
Overthrowing Roe v Wade wouldn’t make abortion illegal, it would simply allow each state to set its own rules.
When asked if the Supreme Court could soon consider the abortion issue, President Trump said “it is certainly possible”.
He added: “Maybe they would do it in a different way. Maybe they would give it back to the States. You just don’t know what’s going to happen. “
- What is happening in the fight for abortion?