I’ve never known a time when Roe v. Wade did not exist. The landmark decision from the US Supreme Court recognized the constitutional right of women to abortions. Now, the Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case that appears likely to severely gut or weaken the abortion protections that have been in place for nearly 50 years.
To fully understand what this means, you must first understand that, prior to Roe v Wade, upwards of a million women every year were resorting to self-induced or back-alley abortion procedures that were illegal and sometimes deadly. Efforts to ban abortion are, and always have been, a question of money and power, a combination that was made clear in the case of Roe v. Wade.
Who Was the Plaintiff in Roe v. Wade?
The lead plaintiff was listed as “Jane Roe,” but we now know that her name was Norma Leah McCorvey Nelson. She was an unmarried pregnant woman, who filed suit to challenge the Texas abortion laws. The case represented “Roe” and others, with a Texas doctor joining the case. He argued that the abortion laws were so vague that doctors couldn’t easily follow them.
Was Abortion Legal Before Roe v. Wade?
When I studied American Women in History in college, I was intrigued by the fact that, early in our history, abortion was legal in the US before the ~4th month of pregnancy. In the early 1800s, regulators began placing restrictions on the sale of dangerous (sometimes fatal) abortion-inducing drugs. When the American Medical Association (AMA) was founded in 1847, anti-abortion proponents began working to make abortion illegal.
The AMA was working to protect the best interests of their membership body. The Catholic Church banned abortion in 1869. Then, Congress passed the Comstock law in 1873 to ban contraceptives as well as any abortion-inducing drug. The combined forces effectively banned abortion across the US.
How Did the Supreme Court Rule on Contraceptives?
The Supreme Court reversed the ban on birth control for married couples in 1965. The Court ruled that the ban violated the couples’ right to privacy under the 14th Amendment. Then, the Supreme Court overturned the ban on contraceptives for unmarried adults in 1972.
These two rulings set the stage for the winning right-to-privacy argument for Roe v. Wade. The trend toward reversing the bans on abortion had already started, though. Hawaii and New York legalized abortion in 1970, while Alaska and Washington legalized abortion in 1973.
I really need people to stop casually saying that SCOTUS overturning Roe v. Wade will be great for Democrats in 2022. People are going to suffer. Our most basic right to bodily autonomy will be gone. The effects of this go beyond a midterm election—it’s a national tragedy.
— Lauren Rankin (@laurenarankin) December 3, 2021
What Was the Supreme Court’s Decision for Roe v. Wade?
On January 22, 1973, the US Supreme Court found that the right of a woman to have an abortion was protected under the 14th Amendment. Their ruling was in line with what the Court had already ruled around the issues of contraceptives. Roe v Wade presented the court with a case where a young woman, called “Roe” (McCorvvey) sought an abortion in Texas, where the procedure was only legal to save a woman’s life.
Roe had already given birth twice and had given both babies up for adoption. With her current pregnancy, Roe first tried to get an illegal abortion, but could not do so. She then reached out to Texas attorneys Sarah Weddington and Linda Coffee, who agreed to help her to challenge the state anti-abortion laws.
Roe (McCorvvey) won her case when the Texas district court ruled that the ban on abortion violated her right to privacy. Henry Wade was the District Attorney who appealed the ruling and took the case all the way to the Supreme Court. While the case was still being tossed about through the appeals process, Roe (McCorvvey) gave birth and put the baby up for adoption.
What Did Roe v. Wade Change About Women in America?
More than anything, Roe v. Wade protected women’s rights to determine what happened to their bodies. It’s been part of a sexual revolution, and the decision has been controversial. It has also helped to inspire a record number of bills designed to support the reproductive health rights of women.
Roe v. Wade has been an important part of why positive changes in women’s rights and health have been possible. The ruling closely correlates with hopeful evolutions in society: women marrying later in life or not marrying at all. It correlated with more women in the workforce and more women in college. There are so many milestones for women that could not have happened or would not have happened when they did without Roe v Wade.
What About the Future?
Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization is a case involving Mississippi’s 15-week abortion ban. As Mississippi’s top lawyer, Attorney General Lynn Fitch claims that, because of “sweeping policy advances,” abortion is no longer needed. So, she is taking the case to the Supreme Court with the express and stated purpose of overturning Roe v Wade.
Fitch’s claims do not take into consideration the true realities of poverty and powerlessness, of rape and incest, of all the other factors that affect the lives of women in America. She also fails to take into consideration the fact that the risk of death is 14x higher during childbirth than abortion, a fact that Justice Sonia Sotomayor was quick to point out.
In her Washington Post article, Melissa Murray sheds light on why Sotomayor’s statements shifted from responding to her colleagues to more of a public-facing focus: “And she began to speak as if to the public rather than to the justices, signaling that while the situation in the courts looks grim for abortion rights advocates, their political fight will, and must, continue.”
Justice Sonia Sotomayor, a consistent supporter of abortion rights, grilled Mississippi’s solicitor general, asking whether the institution of the Supreme Court would “survive the stench” of overturning Roe in what would appear to be a political act. https://t.co/sbHcIObnjQ
— The New York Times (@nytimes) December 1, 2021
It’s clear that abortion proponents are hoping for the best but preparing for the worst. “We have to weather the storm so that in the future — five, 10, 15 years from now — we’re talking about how we managed to repeal all these abortion bans,” says Elizabeth Nash, State Policy Analyst for the Guttmacher Institute, an organization that supports abortion rights.
Already, 12 states are prepared to put immediate abortion bans in place just as soon as the Supreme Court hands down their decision. Already, Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves is saying he would enforce the abortion ban. Another 14 states are expected to implement abortion restrictions.
What are your thoughts on the current case before the US Supreme Court? Do you think Roe v Wade should be overturned or upheld? We’d love to hear your comments below.
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