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Photo of Norma McCorvey, a.k.a. Jane Roe.
In 1972, Norma McCorvey ("Jane Roe") filed a lawsuit claiming that a Texas law criminalizing most abortions violated her constitutional rights.

Photo Credit: AP
Roe v. Wade (1973)

Roe v. Wade (1973) ruled unconstitutional a state law that banned abortions except to save the life of the mother. The Court ruled that the states were forbidden from outlawing or regulating any aspect of abortion performed during the first trimester of pregnancy, could only enact abortion regulations reasonably related to maternal health in the second and third trimesters, and could enact abortion laws protecting the life of the fetus only in the third trimester. Even then, an exception had to be made to protect the life of the mother. Controversial from the moment it was released, Roe v. Wade politically divided the nation more than any other recent case and continues to inspire heated debates, politics, and even violence today ("the culture wars"). Though by no means the Supreme Court's most important decision, Roe v. Wade remains its most recognized.

At the time Roe was decided, most states severely restricted or banned the practice of abortion. However, these restrictions were challenged amid the sexual revolution and feminist movements of the 1960s. In 1970, two recent graduates of the University of Texas Law School, Linda Coffee and Sarah Weddington, brought a lawsuit on behalf of a pregnant woman, Dallas area resident Norma L. McCorvey ("Jane Roe"), claiming a Texas law criminalizing most abortions violated Roe's constitutional rights. The Texas law banned all abortions except those necessary to save the life of the mother. Roe claimed that while her life was not endangered, she could not afford to travel out of state and had a right to terminate her pregnancy in a safe medical environment. The lawsuit was filed against Henry Wade, Dallas Country District Attorney, in a Texas federal court. The Texas court ruled that the law violated the Constitution. Wade appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which reviewed the case throughout 1971 and 1972.

In a 7-2 decision written by Justice Harry Blackmun (who was chosen because of his prior experience as counsel to the Mayo Clinic), the Court ruled that the Texas statute violated Jane Roe's constitutional right to privacy. The Court argued that the Constitution's First, Fourth, Ninth, and Fourteenth Amendments protect an individual's "zone of privacy" against state laws and cited past cases ruling that marriage, contraception, and child rearing are activities covered in this "zone of privacy." The Court then argued that the "zone of privacy" was "broad enough to encompass a woman's decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy." This decision involved myriad physical, psychological, and economic stresses a pregnant woman must face.

Because abortions lie within a pregnant woman's "zone of privacy," the abortion decision "and its effectuation" are fundamental rights that are protected by the Constitution from regulation by the states, so laws regulating abortion must be sufficiently "important." Was Texas's law sufficiently important to pass constitutional muster? The Court reviewed the history of abortion laws, from ancient Greece to contemporary America, and therein found three justifications for banning abortions: "a Victorian social concern to discourage illicit sexual conduct"; protecting the health of women; and protecting prenatal life. The Court rejected the first two justifications as irrelevant given modern gender roles and medical technology. As for the third justification, the Court argued that prenatal life was not within the definition of "persons" as used and protected in the U.S. Constitution and that America's criminal and civil laws only sometimes regard fetuses as persons deserving protection. Culturally, while some groups regard fetuses as people deserving full rights, no consensus exists. The Court ruled that Texas was thus taking one "view" of many. Protecting all fetuses under this contentious "view" of prenatal life was not sufficiently important to justify the state's banning of almost all abortions.

However, the Court ruled that narrower state laws regulating abortion might be sufficiently important to be constitutional. For example, because the medical community finds that the human fetus might be "viable" ("capable of meaningful life") outside the mother's womb after six months of growth, a state might constitutionally protect a fetus from abortions in the third trimester of pregnancy, as long as it permitted an exception to save the life of the mother. Additionally, because second- and third-trimester abortions present more health risks to the mother, the state might regulate certain aspects of abortions related to maternal health after three months of pregnancy. In the first trimester, however, a state's interests in regulating abortions can never be found "important" enough. Such abortions are thus exclusively for the patient and her doctor to govern.

Roe v. Wade, controversial when released in January 1973, remains one of the most intensely debated Supreme Court decision today. In no other case has the Court entertained so many disputes around ethics, religion, and biology, and then so definitively ruled on them all. To the political Right, critics accuse the Court in Roe of legalizing the murder of human life with flimsy constitutional justifications. To the Left, critics maintain that Roe was poorly reasoned and caused an unnecessary political backlash against abortion rights. Defenders of the decision, however, argue that Roe v. Wade was a disinterested, pragmatic, and ultimately principled decision defending the most basic rights of personal liberty and privacy.

Alex McBride is a third year law student at Tulane Law School in New Orleans. He is articles editor on the TULANE LAW REVIEW and the 2005 recipient of the Ray Forrester Award in Constitutional Law. In 2007, Alex will be clerking with Judge Susan Braden on the United States Court of Federal Claims in Washington.

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