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Supreme Court Case Roe v. Wade: Summary, Decision & Impact on Abortion

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  • 0:10 Roe v. Wade
  • 1:49 In the Supreme Court
  • 3:06 Support & Opposition
  • 4:31 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Adam Richards

Adam has a master's degree in history.

''Roe v. Wade, 1973'' was the landmark Supreme Court decision in regard to legalized abortion. Learn about the case, the decision and its impact on the United States.

Context of Roe v. Wade

At the beginning of the 1970s, the major women's issue within the United States was the campaign for the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). This legislation essentially required that women receive the same rights as men. Unfortunately, due to tremendous conservative opposition at the time, the ERA failed to pass through Congress. While the ERA was a contentious issue among women and the federal government, another issue arose that polarized the United States through contemporary times. This was the Supreme Court's landmark ruling in Roe v. Wade (1973) that set the precedent for legalized abortion in the United States.

The case surrounding the right to abortion began in 1969 when Norma McCorvey became pregnant. McCorvey, who was opposed to having a child, traveled to Dallas, Texas, where she attempted to lie about her method of conception in order to obtain an abortion. Under Texas state law, abortions were only legal as long as the child was conceived via rape or incest, or the mother's health was in serious peril. Unfortunately, her rouse was unveiled and the state refused to permit a legal abortion.

McCorvey then sought legal counsel to challenge the state of Texas on the basis that the United States Constitution protected her right to have an abortion. McCorvey's case reached the Texas district courts and her identity was masked under the pseudonym 'Jane Roe.' Texas appointed Dallas County District Attorney Henry Wade to argue the case of the state. Roe v. Wade was under way.

Ultimately, the court ruled in favor of Roe. The majority opinion stated that McCorvey's right to an abortion fell under the statute set in the Ninth Amendment of the Constitution, which guaranteed the right to privacy of American citizens. Dismayed, Henry Wade appealed the decision to the Supreme Court in 1970.

Roe v. Wade in the Supreme Court

The Supreme Court heard the arguments of Roe v. Wade in 1972. The decision came shortly thereafter on January 22, 1973. In a 7-to-2 decision, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Roe. The two dissenting votes came from Justices Byron White and William Rehnquist.

The Court argued that the mother has the constitutional right to abortion without being subject to a criminal offense under the Fourteenth Amendment, more specifically, the due process clause, which provides privacy to Americans and their personal decisions. However, the Court argued that the right to abortion must be balanced with the life of the child and the health of the mother. The state had the right to intervene if an abortion would cause harm or death to the mother, or the child had developed past a certain time frame.

The Supreme Court later altered the framework with which the state could intervene to protect the child. The Court argued that a woman's right to abortion is legal until the child reaches 'viability.' This meant that once it was deemed that a child could successfully live outside of the mother with or without medical assistance, the state could intervene and terminate the mother's right to an abortion. The decision in Roe v. Wade established important provisions for both women's rights as well as states' rights. In case you were wondering, Norma McCorvey gave birth to her child before the Supreme Court decision was made.

Support and Opposition

As you might have expected, there was a severe outbreak of support and opposition following the Supreme Court ruling. Many liberals viewed the decision as an important success for women's rights, including the privacy in personal decision-making concerning reproduction and childbirth. However, the conservative backlash was much more visible.

Those who opposed the court decision argued that abortion threatened family values by potentially tearing apart a family over the decision to abort. Additionally, conservatives focused on the unborn child's right to life. In fact, the opposition movement launched a campaign known as the 'Right to Life' in order to petition Congress to reject the Supreme Court's decision on the basis that the unborn fetus retained rights, especially the right to life.

Others suggested that nowhere in the Constitution is there language that supports the right to an abortion. Rather, the Supreme Court had to base its decision off ambiguous language over the right to privacy. Opponents to Roe v. Wade made small strides in having abortions reduced by rallying Congress to eliminate abortion funds for women with low incomes in 1976.

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