A Summary of Roe v. Wade: The Landmark Ruling & Its Legacy Explained
It wouldn't be much of a stretch to claim that Roe v. Wade remains one of the most controversial court cases in American history. Nearly half a century after the Supreme Court ruling, which prohibited states from banning abortion, Americans still remain largely divided on the case’s outcome. Nearly 50 years after the landmark ruling, the fight to either protect or overturn Roe v. Wade is still a frequent campaign cornerstone. And, in the wake of the passing of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in September 2020, many pro-choice Americans began to fear that Roe v. Wade might be revisited, and threatened, in the near future by a decidedly conservative court. Even if you know the name of the court case, it’s time to take a deeper dive into the history of Roe v. Wade — and why the ruling remains so essential to this day.
The Early History of Reproductive Rights
When Roe v. Wade made its way to the Supreme Court (SCOTUS), the battle for reproductive rights, which was centered on cis women at the time, was nothing new. In fact, some of the earliest American abortion regulations formed in the 1820s and ‘30s, mainly stemming from the fact that abortion methods at the time were deemed dangerous.
By the 1850s, the American Medical Association began to call for the de-legalization of all abortions — except for cases in which a pregnant person’s life was at risk. The motive here was to ensure that the offspring immigrant or lower-class folks didn’t outnumber the offspring of upper-class folks; of course, that offensive discourse was cloaked in calls for "morality," and, in particular, a kind of Christian morality.
Within just a few decades, abortion was illegal in much of the United States, though that didn’t stop doctors in the 1880s from performing them. More importantly, it didn’t stop folks from needing them. However, it did mean that safe abortions were largely only available to upper-class, white cis women; other folks seeking abortions were forced to resort to dangerous, "back-alley" methods, which were plagued by tremendous health and legal risks.
During the late 1950s and early ‘60s, women's rights groups — as well as groups like the American Law Institute — began to call for laws that allowed (cis) women, regardless of their race or class, the same access to safe abortion services. In 1970, Hawaii became the first state to legalize abortion, specifically for its residents, while New York state started offering legalized, safe abortions anyone who wanted one. When Roe v. Wade made its way to the Supreme Court in 1973, other states, like Alaska and Washington, had followed Hawaii and New York’s lead.
The Story Behind Roe v. Wade
The case we now know as Roe v. Wade first began in 1970: A woman named Norma McCorvey, referred to as "Jane Roe" in court documents to protect her privacy, filed a lawsuit against Henry Wade, the district attorney of Dallas County, Texas at the time. What made McCorvey file that lawsuit? A new Texas law made abortion outright illegal unless the woman’s life was at risk. Having grown up poor, McCorvey had already given up two children for adoption. She ended up doing the same with a third child, namely because she didn't have the money to either bribe a doctor for an abortion or travel to a place where they were legal.
That said, the criminalization of abortion would disproportionately impact folks living in poverty, like McCorvey, as well as people of color. In June of 1970, the case reached the Texas District Court and, while the court did rule that the state’s abortion ban was unconstitutional, it refused to file an injunction. Neither Roe nor Wade were satisfied with this outcome, so both parties appealed the case to the Supreme Court, which agreed to hear it in 1971.
The Roe v. Wade Ruling
The Supreme Court ruling on Roe v. Wade was made on January 22, 1973. In a 7-2 decision, the court voted to strike down the Texas abortion ban, which prevented states across the country from outright banning abortions. By and large, the court’s decision made abortion services safe and more accessible to folks throughout the country and, according to Planned Parenthood, "the decision also set a legal precedent that affected more than 30 subsequent Supreme Court cases involving restrictions on access to abortion."
However, despite ruling in favor of Roe, the court did try to find some middle ground. As such, the court outlined a ruling that divided pregnancy into three trimesters. During the first trimester, they decreed that a person should have the choice to terminate their pregnancy; for the second trimester, states could regulate abortions, so long as they didn’t ban them entirely; and, during the third trimester, the court ruled that states maintained the right to prohibit late-term abortions — unless the pregnant person’s life was in jeopardy.
Additionally, this landmark ruling faced quite a bit of backlash from opponents of safe and legal abortion. For the next three decades, the Supreme Court ruled on a series of cases that severely restricted abortion access for low-income folks by upholding state and federal bans on funding for abortions and requiring that young people obtain parental consent (or notify their parents) before accessing abortion services.
Other Cases Related to Roe v. Wade
In 1992, the Supreme Court’s conservative slant led many pro-choice advocates to fear Roe v. Wade would be overturned, particularly when the court ruled on cases like Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey. Although the core tenant of Roe was upheld during this time — that "the constitutionally protected right to privacy includes every woman’s right to make her own personal medical decisions" (via Planned Parenthood) — the rulings still created more obstacles and restrictions for those seeking legal and safe abortions.
When the makeup of the Supreme Court shifted again in 2007, the Justices ruled on Gonzales v. Carhart and Gonzales v. Planned Parenthood Federation of America, Inc. In a 5–4 decision, the Supreme Court upheld the first federal legislation to criminalize abortion: The Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003 makes it a federal crime to take certain steps involved in second-trimester abortions, regardless of the pregnant person’s health. This was shocking to many in that a key tenant of Roe had always been that the woman’s (or pregnant person’s) health must be the central concern when it came to abortion access. Such decisions are "alarming," wrote Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, namely because "for the first time since Roe, the Court bless[ed] a prohibition with no exception safeguarding a woman’s health."
But these restrictions aren't just a blow to healthcare. In fact, pro-choice supporters believe restricting abortion access — or making abortions illegal — would do little to decrease the amount of folks seeking abortions. As the past has shown, wealthier white cis women who could afford to travel to states that allow abortion would remain relatively unaffected, while people with less access, privilege and capital — namely Black folks, Indigenous folks and other communities of color, LGBTQ+ folks and people experiencing poverty — would suffer.
Moreover, restricting abortion access would likely lead to the reemergence of dangerous, underground abortion practices, like those that resulted in the deaths of so many desperate Americans in the past. That is, according to Planned Parenthood, "In 1965, abortion was so unsafe that 17% of all deaths due to pregnancy and childbirth were the result of illegal abortion" whereas, today, "less than 0.3% of women undergoing legal abortions at all gestational ages sustain a serious complication requiring hospitalization."
Could Roe v. Wade Really Be Overturned?
Even though presidential candidates are often grilled on their abortion stance, the person who holds that office doesn’t actually have the power to singlehandedly impact Roe v. Wade’s standing in such a direct way. However, the president can appoint Supreme Court Justices, who, in turn, have the power to vote on the case if its ruling is ever called into question — something that would happen if a new case revolving around the right to abortion was called into question.
For example, if someone files a case against an overly restrictive abortion regulation in her state, the case would be heard in one of the state’s district courts; it could then be appealed in the U.S. Court of Appeals before being submitted for a Supreme Court appeal. On average, the Supreme Court accepts just 100-150 cases of the 7,000+ that are submitted annually.
Even if such a case did reach the Supreme Court — and even if Roe v. Wade was overturned as a result — the consequences wouldn’t be so clear-cut. That is, without Roe v. Wade, states would have the option to ban abortions. Even though an overturned Roe v. Wade wouldn’t automatically make abortion illegal in the U.S., it’s clear that the decision would be quite consequential for people in conservative states, who might seek to criminalize abortion.
In light of 1992’s Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey, the Supreme Court noted that "the ability of women to participate equally in the economic and social life of the Nation has been facilitated by their ability to control their reproductive lives." Still, to this day, states continue to introduce legislation that aims to criminalize and restrict abortion services. Meanwhile, for pro-choice Americans, the fight to protect Roe isn’t over either. For many the ability to access legal, safe abortion services is inextricably tied to healthcare, agency and emancipation.