What is Roe v. Wade? Explaining the seminal SCOTUS abortion case

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The Supreme Court’s widely anticipated decision Friday to uphold the Mississippi abortion law challenging Roe v. Wade marked the first time the high court addressed the constitutionality of first-trimester abortions since the landmark case made the procedure legal nationwide.

In the nearly five decades since the 1973 ruling, its basic principle was repeatedly affirmed and reaffirmed, even as the high court approved restrictions that include the 1976 “Hyde Amendment” against federal funding for most abortions and a 2003 ban on controversial, “partial-birth” abortions.

Here is what you need to know about the landmark case:

What is Roe v. Wade?

In March 1970, a pregnant Texas woman in Dallas County used the name “Jane Roe” to sue the local district attorney, Henry Wade, over a statute that made abortions illegal except to save the life of the mother.

The suit alleged that the law was unconstitutionally vague and violated Roe’s rights under the First, Fourth, Fifth, Ninth and 14th Amendments.

Norma McCorvey, Jane Roe in the 1973 court case, left, and her attorney Gloria Allred hold hands as they leave the Supreme Court building in Washington, DC., Wednesday, April 26, 1989 after sitting in while the court listened to arguments in a Missouri abortion case.
In March 1970, “Jane Roe,” left, sued the local Texas district attorney over a statute that made abortions illegal except to save the life of the mother.
AP/J. Scott Applewhite
Jane Roe, left, a Texas cleaning woman whose pregnancy led to the 1973 landmark decision legalizing abortion, walks with her attorney Gloria Allred outside the Supreme Court Wednesday, April 27, 1989 in Washington.
Norma McCorvey, aka Jane Roe, walks with her attorney Gloria Allred outside the Supreme Court in Washington, DC.
AP/J.Scott Applewhite

The case was consolidated with related claims brought by a physician facing prosecution for performing abortions and a married couple who said the wife could get pregnant if their contraception failed.

A three-judge panel issued a judgment declaring the law unconstitutional but didn’t issue an injunction against Wade, who said he’d continue prosecuting doctors who performed illegal abortions.

Roe filed an appeal to the Supreme Court, which heard oral arguments on Dec. 13, 1971, and again on Oct. 11, 1972.

Norma McCorvey, 35, the Dallas mother whose desire to have an abortion was the basis for a landmark Supreme Court decision a decade earlier, takes time from her job as a house painter to pose for a photograph in Terrell, Texas, Thursday, Jan. 21, 1983.
“Jane Roe” was the alias used by Norma McCorvey, of Dallas, Texas.
AP/Bill Janscha

Who was Jane Roe?

Shortly after the Supreme Court decision, Roe was identified as Norma McCorvey, a carnival ticket seller who was unmarried, pregnant and too poor to travel out of state for an abortion when she met two lawyers and agreed to file suit against the Texas statutes.

McCorvey gave birth to the child, her third, and gave up the baby for adoption before the case reached the Supreme Court.

In 1989, actress Holly Hunter won an Emmy for portraying McCorvey — called “Ellen Russell” — in the TV movie “Roe vs. Wade” and McCorvey’s 1994 memoir, “I Am Roe,” detailed her life before and after the Supreme Court’s momentous ruling.

After getting baptized by the Rev. Flip Benham of Operation Rescue in 1995, McCorvey publicly switched sides in the abortion debate.

But a documentary released in 2020, about three years after she died, revealed a “deathbed confession” in which she said, “I took their money and they took me out in front of the cameras and told me what to say.”

Who was Henry Wade?

The ninth of 11 children born to east Texas farmers, Wade was a former sailor and FBI agent who was elected Dallas County’s district attorney in 1950, a job to which he was repeatedly re-elected before retiring in 1986.

Dallas County District Attorney Henry Wade is shown in this early 1970s photo.
Dallas County District Attorney Henry Wade is shown in this early 1970s photo.
ASSOCIATED PRESS

Wade never lost a case he tried personally, including the prosecution of Jack Ruby, who famously gunned down Lee Harvey Oswald following his assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

He was known as “The Chief,” a cigar-chewing advocate of law and order who told prospective prosecutors that he only hired lawyers “who could eat raw meat and chomp on nails,” according to an obituary in The Guardian following his death on March 1, 2001.

But three of his office’s convictions were later overturned on appeal, including that of Randall Dale Adams, who was framed in a cop killing but freed from death row following the revelations in the 1988 documentary, “The Thin Blue Line.”

Wade — a Democrat — never commented on the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade ruling and reportedly never took “any personal interest” in the case that bore his name — even to the point of not reading the high court’s decision.

What was the law around abortion in the US before Roe v. Wade?

Before Roe v. Wade, abortions were generally illegal in the US although most states allowed them if a woman’s life would be endangered by carrying the pregnancy to term.

In 1962, the American Law Institute issued a “Model Penal Code on Abortion” that recommended further exceptions involving the health of the mother, as well in cases of rape, incest and fetuses diagnosed with severe structural defects.

An estimated 5,000 people, women and men, march around the Minnesota Capitol building protesting the U.S. Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision, ruling against state laws that criminalize abortion, in St. Paul, Minn., Jan. 22, 1973.
An estimated 5,000 people, women and men, marched around the Minnesota Capitol building protesting the US Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision in St. Paul, Minn. on Jan. 22, 1973.
AP

Colorado in 1967 became the first state to adopt the recommendations and 13 others did so by 1972. Four states — New York, Washington, Alaska and Hawaii — completely repealed their anti-abortion laws in 1970.

However, only New York didn’t impose a residency requirement to get abortions and an estimated 100,000-plus women traveled from another state to New York City for procedures in 1972, according to an analysis by the nonprofit Guttmacher Institute, which advocates for abortion rights.

What did the Supreme Court decide?

The Supreme Court voted 7-2 in favor of Roe, with Justice Harry Blackmun — who became the court’s most liberal member after his nomination by President Richard Nixon — writing the majority opinion handed down on Jan. 22, 1973.

In it, Blackmun said the Texas statutes violated a woman’s right to privacy as guaranteed by the due process clause of the 14th Amendment.

Demonstrators demanding a woman's right to choose march to the U.S. Capitol for a rally seeking repeal of all anti-abortion laws in Washington, D.C., Nov. 20, 1971.
Demonstrators demanding a woman’s right to choose march to the US Capitol for a rally seeking repeal of all anti-abortion laws in Washington, DC in 1971.
AP

But the majority disagreed with Roe’s contention that women had the absolute right to terminate their pregnancies at any time, saying there was a “compelling state interest” in balancing the competing interests between a mother’s health and the potential life of her fetus.

The ruling laid out a framework in which a woman could decide to have an abortion for any reason during the first trimester of pregnancy, states could regulate the procedure for “preservation and protection of maternal health” during the second and could outlaw abortions during the third, except in cases involving the health or life of the mother.

Have there been subsequent decisions around abortion in the US?

Since Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court has handed down more than 20 decisions involving abortion, all of which upheld a woman’s constitutional right to an abortion during the first trimester.

They include the 1992 ruling in Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey, which involved amendments to the Keystone State’s abortion law requiring women to provide “informed consent” and wait 24 hours before undergoing procedures, as well as notify their husbands, if married, or obtain parental consent if they’re minors.

In a bitter, 5-4 decision, the court reaffirmed Roe v. Wade but imposed a new standard for abortion restrictions that bans the imposition of an “undue burden,” defined as putting a “substantial obstacle in the path of a woman seeking an abortion before the fetus attains viability.”

Using that guideline, the majority opinion upheld three of the Pennsylvania amendments but tossed the one that required women to notify their husbands before getting abortions.

In an unusual move, the decision was written by three justices: Sandra Day O’Connor, Anthony Kennedy and David Souter, all of whom have since retired.

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