In 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court recognized a woman’s constitutional right to an abortion in Roe v. Wade. The landmark ruling legalized abortion nationwide but divided public opinion and has been under attack ever since.
The case was filed in 1971 by Norma McCorvey, a 22-year-old living in Texas who was unmarried and seeking a termination of her unwanted pregnancy.
Because of state legislation preventing abortions unless the mother’s life is at risk, she was unable to undergo the procedure in a safe and legal environment.
So McCorvey sued Henry Wade, the Dallas county district attorney, in 1970. The case went on to the Supreme Court, under the filing Roe vs Wade, to protect McCorvey’s privacy.
Supreme Court Decision
The Supreme Court handed down the watershed 7-2 decision that a woman’s right to make her own medical decisions, including the choice to have an abortion, is protected under the 14th Amendment.
In particular, that the Due Process Clause of the the 14th Amendment provides a fundamental ‘right to privacy’ that protects a woman’s liberty to choose whether or not to have an abortion.
…nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law
The landmark ruling saw abortions decriminalized in 46 states, but under certain specific conditions which individual states could decide on. For example, states could decide whether abortions were allowed only during the first and second trimester but not the third (typically beyond 28 weeks).
Among pro-choice campaigners, the decision was hailed as a victory which would mean fewer women would become seriously – or even fatally – ill from abortions carried out by unqualified or unlicensed practitioners. Moreover, the freedom of choice was considered a significant step in the equality fight for women in the country. Victims of rape or incest would be able to have the pregnancy terminated and not feel coerced into motherhood.
However, pro-lifers contended it was tantamount to murder and that every life, no matter how it was conceived, is precious. Though the decision has never been overturned, anti-abortionists have prompted hundreds of states laws since then narrowing the scope of the ruling.
One such was the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act signed by President George W. Bush in 2003, which banned a procedure used to perform second-trimester abortions.
McCorvey lived a quiet life until the 1980s when she revealed herself to be Jane Roe
Norma McCorvey (Jane Roe)
Following the ruling, McCorvey lived a quiet life until the 1980s when she revealed herself to be Jane Roe. McCorvey became a leading, outspoken pro-abortion voice in American discourse, even working at a women’s clinic where abortions were performed.
However, she performed an unlikely U-turn in 1995, becoming a born again Christian and began traveling the country speaking out against the procedure.
In 2003, a she filed a motion to overturn her original 1973 ruling with the U.S. district court in Dallas. The motion moved through the courts until it was ultimately denied by the Supreme Court in 2005.
McCorvey died at an assisted living home in Texas in February 2017, aged 69.
‘The Heartbeat bill’
Multiple governors have signed legislation outlawing abortion if a doctor can detect a so-called ‘fetal heartbeat,’ part of a concerted effort to restrict abortion rights in states across the country.
Under the ban doctors will be prosecuted for flouting the rules.
Abortion-rights supporters see the ‘heartbeat bills’ as virtual bans because ‘fetal heartbeats’ can be detected as early as six weeks, when women may not be aware they are pregnant.
Anti-abortion campaigners have intensified their efforts since Donald Trump was elected president and appointed two conservative justices to the US Supreme Court, hopeful they can convince the right-leaning court to re-examine Roe v. Wade.
Georgia, Ohio, Missouri, and Louisiana have enacted ‘heartbeat laws’ recently, and Alabama passed an even more restrictive version in May, amounting to a near total ban on abortion from the moment of conception. Other states have similar legislation pending.
Similar laws has also been passed in Arkansas, Mississippi, North Dakota, Iowa and Kentucky, though they have been blocked by courts from going into effect as legal challenges have been brought against them.
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