Roe v. Wade is one of the most important U.S. Supreme Court rulings in the history of the United States. It completely altered abortion law in the U.S., and ignited a political war whose effects are still being passionately argued today.
In the state of Texas, a woman brought a lawsuit challenging the state’s anti-abortion law. Norma McCorvey (called “Roe” in the Court’s opinion), a single woman, sued the state of Texas’ attorney general to prevent enforcement of a state law that bans abortion, except where necessary to save the life of the mother. Her lawsuit was considered a “class action” in that McCorvey brought her lawsuit not simply alleging that there was injury to herself, but also injury to others in her position --- namely pregnant women.
When the Supreme Court finally decided the case, it ruled in favor of Roe. In a seven to two decision, the Court stated that the Texas law was unconstitutional. In an opinion written by Associate Justice Blackmun, the Court opined that the state law was an illegal infringement on the ninth and 14th Amendment right of a woman to an abortion. As part of its opinion, the Court adopted a test to help states determine what abortion restrictions were permitted. During the first trimester of the pregnancy, the state could not place any restrictions on abortion and could only regulate it during the second trimester to protect the woman’s health. It also could restrict it in the third trimester, only if the life and health of the mother was not threatened.
Two Justices disagreed with the majority’s opinion. Then, Associate Justice William Rehnquist wrote that the Court was wrong in stating that the Texas law was unconstitutional. He stated that the fact that so many states had restrictions against abortion for the last 100 years shows that the right to an abortion is not “so rooted in the traditions and conscience of our people as to be ranked as fundamental.” Associate Justice Byron White argued that there was nothing in the history or text of the Constitution to support the Court’s judgment and that the Court was substituting its opinion for that of the people of the states, who had the right through their elected representatives to decide if and when abortion should be restricted.
Roe v. Wade ignited a campaign across the country to overturn the decision. In 1980, the Republican Party adopted a platform that called for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would overturn Roe v Wade. Religious organizations launched campaigns to overturn the ruling. And legal groups were set up to find clients who could help bring a new case to the Supreme Court that would overturn Roe.
In 1992, Roe v. Wade was challenged in the Supreme Court in a case called Planned Parenthood v. Casey. In this case, the Court reaffirmed Roe’s central ruling that a woman had a right to an abortion. However, it abandoned Roe’s trimester approach and replaced it with the “undue burden” standard. Under this standard, the government cannot restrict abortion if it poses an “undue burden” on a woman’s right to an abortion and it was up to the courts to decide what an “undue burden” means.