Roe v. Wade 1973

Author:Daniel Brannen, Richard Hanes, Elizabeth Shaw

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Plaintiff: Norma McCorvey (known as Jane Roe)

Defendant: Henry B. Wade, Texas District Attorney

Plaintiff's Claim: That a 1859 Texas abortion law violated women's constitutional right to have an abortion.

Chief Lawyers for Plaintiff: Sarah Weddington and Linda Coffee

Chief Lawyers for Defendant: Jay Floyd and Robert Flowers

Justices for the Court: Harry A. Blackmun, William J. Brennan, Jr., Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, William O. Douglas, Thurgood Marshall, Lewis F. Powell, Potter Stewart

Justices Dissenting: William H. Rehnquist, Byron R. White

Date of Decision: January 22, 1973

Decision: Ruled in favor of Roe and struck down the Texas abortion law as unconstitutional.

Significance: The decision legalized abortion. The ruling included three key ideas. First, the ruling recognized the right of women to choose to have an abortion during the stage of pregnancy (one to six months) when the fetus has little chance of survival outside the womb and to obtain the abortion without unreasonable interference from the state. Secondly, the ruling confirmed a state's power to restrict abortions, except to protect a woman's life or health, at the stage (seven to nine months) when a fetus could live outside the womb. Third, the ruling confirmed the principle that the state has interests in both the health of the woman and the life of the fetus.

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"My name is Norma McCorvey, but you know me as 'Jane Roe.' Twenty-one years ago, when I was poor and alone and pregnant, I was the plaintiff in Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that gave American women the right to choose abortion, to control their . . . own bodies, lives, and destinies" (from I Am Roe [1994], an autobiography by Norma McCorvey).

For years after the Roe v. Wade decision McCorvey remained anonymous. But in the early 1990s she began to emerge as a public figure. She worked as a telephone counselor in an abortion clinic and later as a cleaning woman, but when time allowed she would travel to various parts of the country to speak at colleges and to women's groups. People reacted to McCorvey in different ways. Some saw her as a famous woman whose name appears in many publications. Others think of her as a "heavy-duty feminist theorist or even a politician," characterizations she laughed at in her autobiography. Those opposed to abortion often called her a "demon" or "baby-killer." But in her own words, "Actually, Norma McCorvey is none of these women. I'm just a regular woman who like so many other regular women, got pregnant and didn't know what to do. . . "

Perhaps more than any other U.S. Supreme Court decision in history, the Roe v. Wade ruling, legalizing abortion, aroused passion and controversy. The 1973 decision touched off a battle between supporters of the Pro-Life movement seeking to overturn the ruling and the Pro-Choice supporters working to prevent the decision from being reversed or weakened. The Pro-Life group viewed abortion as murder. The Pro-Choice group was completely convinced that denying a woman the "right to choose" whether or not to have an abortion was an unacceptable government invasion of her freedom and privacy.

A look back at the history of abortion legislation in the United States reveals the stage that was set for Roe v. Wade.

Abortion Legal History

No abortion laws existed in the United States until the nineteenth century. The American Medical Association (AMA), established in 1847, became interested in driving out of business unlicensed persons performing abortions. Joined by religious leaders, the AMA successfully lead campaigns to outlaw abortions. By the 1880s all states had laws banning abortions except those performed to save the mother's life. In the 1960s two incidents

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influenced a reexamination of abortion laws: (1) the discovery that thalidomide, a drug commonly prescribed for the nausea of early pregnancy, caused birth defects and (2) the 1962 to 1965 German measles epidemic. Both resulted in thousands of children born with often severe defects. Pregnant women affected by the incidents could not seek abortions due to the strict laws.

Norma McCorvey decided she was going to support the anti-abortion cause in the 1990s.

. Reproduced by permission of the Corbis Corporation

Influenced by the 1960s civil rights movement seeking equality for black Americans, women's rights organizations began to see abortion reform as an important step in the quest for equality of the sexes. Women, they reasoned, needed control of their...

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