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Roe et al. v. Wade: 1973

Norma Mccorvey Tests The Law, Constitutional Issues, State Court Favors Plaintiff, Supreme Court Hears The Case

Plaintiff: Norma McCorvey, using "Jane Roe" as an alias and representing all pregnant women in a class-action suit
Defendant: Texas District Attorney Henry B. Wade
Plaintiff's Claim: That Texas' abortion laws violated McCorvey's and other women's constitutional rights
Chief Defense Lawyers: Jay Floyd and Robert Flowers
Chief Lawyers for Plaintiff: Sarah Weddington and Linda Coffee
Justices: Harry Blackmun, William Brennan, Warren Burger, William Douglas, Thurgood Marshall, Lewis Powell, William Rehnquist, Potter Stewart, and Byron White
Place: Washington, D.C.
Date of Decision: January 22, 1973
Decision: Overturned all state laws restricting women's access to abortions during the first trimester of pregnancy and let stand second-trimester restrictions only insofar as they were designed to protect the health of pregnant women

SIGNIFICANCE: The case was the first to establish that a woman, rather than her physician, might be the party injured by a state's criminalization of abortion. Moreover, the decision was in large measure based on an implied "right to privacy" in the U.S. Constitution, which the majority held was violated by state laws restricting a woman's right to abort a fetus prior to its viability outside her womb.

The Supreme Court's landmark decision legalizing abortion in Roe v. Wade aroused more passion than perhaps any other in the Court's history. One segment of the population, energized by Catholic and fundamentalist religious beliefs, held that aborting the unborn was no less than murder. Another segment of the American people was just as convinced and just as adamant that denying a woman's "right to choose" whether or not to bear a child was an intolerable governmental restriction of her freedom and privacy. The decision in 1973 triggered a 20-year battle between its opponents, the self-described "Right to Life" movement who sought to overturn it, and proponents, the "Pro-Choice" advocates who worked to prevent it from being reversed or whittled away. Justice Harry Blackmun, who wrote the majority opinion, had his life threatened and his mailbox filled with letters calling him "Butcher of Dachau, murderer, Pontius Pilate, [and] Adolph Hitler." Each of the other justices received thousands of letters of condemnation as well.

Support for abortion rights had been growing steadily in the years prior to the decision and continued to increase afterward. In 1968, for example, less than 15 percent of the participants in a Gallup Poll approved "of liberalizing the abortion laws," while 40 percent of Gallup Poll respondents approved in the following year. By mid-1972, the Gallup Poll reported 73 percent of all participants and 56 percent of Catholic participants believed "that the decision to undergo an abortion is a matter that should be left solely to the woman and her physician."

Although they appear to be in a minority, those who object to Roe v. Wade do so with a seemingly undying passion; nearly 20 years later, as this is written, their opposition is well organized, well funded and at times even violent. It also has been partially successful: The basic decision still stands, but the high court has narrowed it somewhat by permitting states to regulate abortion for minors and abortions performed in tax-supported institutions.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1973 to 1980