Roe v. Wade

What happened?

Norma McCorvey (later under the alias, Jane Roe) was unable to get an abortion in 1969 because it was illegal under Texas law with exceptions only for rape and incest.  She challenged the constitutionality of the TX law and the case went all the way to the Supreme Court.  The law was defended by Dallas District Attorney Henry Wade.

What did the Court decide?

By a vote of 7-2 the Court overturned the TX law and deemed the right to an abortion to be a fundamental right under the Constitution.  The Court found a “right to privacy” under the 14th amendment, protecting a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy.  The states do have a right to regulate and/or restrict some abortion practices, but most regulations only apply once the fetus reaches “viability” (clarified by a later case).

In 1994, the Court reaffirmed Roe in a 5-4 decision (Planned Parenthood v. Casey) and gave a new standard when determining the validity of laws seeking to regulate or restrict abortion.  The test is whether a state regulation places an “undue burden” on a woman seeking an abortion.  “Undue burden” is defined as a “substantial obstacle in the path of a woman seeking an abortion before the fetus attains viability.”

Why is it important?

Roe created a new constitutional right, legalized abortion, and became the source and reason for countless laws, regulations, and court cases.  Roe is possibly the most politicized Supreme Court case in history.

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