Roe v. Wade: An Overview

The name of the case Roe v. Wade is familiar to many people in the United States. So is its main impact, to establish a constitutional right to abortion — which it did exactly 40 years ago today.

That said, many fewer people know the details, both of the factual case and of the case’s finding. Do you?

What did abortion law look like at the time?

At the time the facts immediately behind the case started, abortion statutes varied by state, though most states restricted abortion significantly. In Texas, where Norma McCorvey (“Jane Roe”) lived, the law prohibited “procuring or attempting an abortion” except to save the mother’s life.

Who was “Jane Roe,” and why did she sue?

“Jane Roe” was Norma McCorvey, a single woman who learned she was pregnant. In 1970, Linda Coffee and Sarah Weddington brought suit on her behalf under the alias of Jane Roe. They asserted that the Texas law violated the Constitution on the grounds “that the Texas Abortion Laws deprive married couples and single women of the right to choose whether to have children” (N.D. Texas Opinion of U.S. District Court June (17,) (1970) – Per Curiam:).

What was the district court’s decision?

The district court issued a declaratory judgment in favor of Roe, finding the Texas abortion laws “unconstitutionally overbroad” and “unconstitutionally vague” (N.D. Texas Opinion of U.S. District Court June (17,) (1970) – Per Curiam:). They also affirmed that the right to choose whether or not to have children is one secured by the Ninth Amendment (i.e., that rights other than those enumerated in the Bill of Rights may still be retained by the people).

What the district court did not do was grant the plaintiffs’ request for injunctive relief, which would have enforced the declaratory judgment. In other words, the district court ruled the Texas abortion laws unconstitutional but did not order Texas to stop enforcing them.

How did it get to the Supreme Court?

The plaintiffs in Roe appealed the part of the district court’s judgment denying the injunction.

Henry Wade, the district attorney of Dallas County and the defendant in the case, cross-appealed the district court’s declaratory judgment.

What did the Supreme Court decide?

The Supreme Court found that a constitutional right to privacy was afforded in the concept of personal liberty outlined in the 14th Amendment rather than the district court’s reasoning for it through the Ninth Amendment. Nonetheless, it found that a right to privacy did exist and that it was “broad enough to encompass a woman’s decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy” (Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113, via Legal Information Institute). The court also found state interests for “safeguarding health, in maintaining medical standards, and in protecting potential life” that allowed for some regulation of abortion.

In trying to balance these competing interests, the court set up the following framework:

  • During the first trimester, abortion is a decision left to the pregnant person with a physician. The state does not have sufficient interest to intervene.
  • Between the end of the first trimester and the point where the fetus becomes viable, the state may regulate abortion “in ways that are reasonably related to maternal health” (Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113, via Legal Information Institute).
  • After the point of fetal viability, the state “may, if it chooses, regulate, and even proscribe, abortion except where it is necessary, in appropriate medical judgment, for the preservation of the life or health of the mother.”

Finally, with respect to injunctive action, the Supreme Court declined to decide whether the district court should have ruled differently on that issue. It reasoned, “we assume the Texas prosecutorial authorities will give full credence to this decision that the present criminal abortion statutes of that State are unconstitutional” (Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113, via Legal Information Institute). That is, the court assumed that declaring the law unconstitutional — particularly, the United States Supreme Court declaring the law unconstitutional — was the same thing as ordering Texas — as well as other states with similar laws — to stop enforcing them.