Today marks the 46th anniversary of the historic Roe v. Wade decision, handed down by the Supreme Court in 1973, which guaranteed women the right to an abortion in all 50 states. Now, as the decision approaches its 50th anniversary, its effects are still being felt all across the country.
A Patchwork Of Conflicting Laws
Prior to Roe v. Wade, according to History, various state and local laws, some dating back to the 1800’s, governed women’s access to abortion. Some states allowed abortion up until “quickening” – that is, when the mother could feel the baby’s movements in her abdomen.
Methods were crude, and often included the use of drugs that often left the mother dead.
By the 1850’s, doctors were calling for abortion to be outlawed. Similarly, the Catholic Church and various anti-immigrant groups were also coming out in opposition to abortion, the latter of which was largely spurned on by the fact that immigrants were having more babies than native whites.
By the 1880’s, abortion and contraception laws had effectively banned abortion across large swaths of the country.
The Sexual Revolution
By the 1960’s, the Sexual Revolution was in full swing and, spurned on by the advent of oral, hormonal contraception, women were able to more freely express their sexual agency without fear of unwanted pregnancy.
As states loosened up their laws on birth control, some, such as Hawaii and New York, also began to legalize abortion – but only for state residents.
A Woman In Trouble In Texas
In 1969, an impoverished woman who had twice given up babies for adoption, found herself pregnant again and wanting an abortion in Texas. However, as “Jane Roe” would later find out, Texas law allowed abortion only in extreme cases in which doing so would save the life of the mother.
According to a 2018 ABC News report, Roe (later identified as Norma McCovey) sought the help of two Texas lawyers who were attempting to challenge Texas’ abortion laws – and by extension, those across the whole country.
The Supreme Court Weighs In
It took years to get before the Supreme Court, during which time McCovey gave birth to her baby, but eventually the Court heard arguments for and against abortion. And on January 22, 1973, the Supreme Court ruled that denying a woman the right to an abortion violates her rights as laid out in the 14th Amendment.
Harry Blackmun, writing the Court’s majority opinion, said that the Constitution is clear: a woman is free to terminate her pregnancy under the “right of privacy.”
“The right of privacy, whether it be founded in the Fourteenth Amendment’s concept of personal liberty and restrictions upon state action, as we feel it is, or, as the district court determined, in the Ninth Amendment’s reservation of rights to the people, is broad enough to encompass a woman’s decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy.”
The Impact Five Decades Later
Now going on 50 years since that landmark decision, the right to legal abortion remains a contentious issue in American politics, to put it mildly. Meanwhile, the Washington Post reports that, despite an initial spike in legal abortions after Roe v. Wade, abortions are actually on the decline.
Ever since the decision, a variety of abortion-related cases have come before various Supreme Courts, with varying results. Some decisions have affirmed restrictions on abortion and abortion rights, while others have struck down laws aimed at restricting abortion rights. A patchwork of laws regarding abortion once again exists across the 50 states.
At least two abortion-related cases are due to wind up before the Supreme Court in the coming months, according to the New Republic, including a a Louisiana law that requires doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital, as well as a similar case out of Missouri.
Meanwhile, by some measures, Trump Supreme Court appointee Brett Kavanaugh is seen as a possible conservative vote that could seriously curtail abortion rights, according to the New Republic article cited above, and possibly lead to Roe v. Wade eventually being overturned.