On January 22, 1973, the Supreme Court handed down one of the most controversial opinions in its history. It issued its opinion regarding the constitutionality of state laws banning and even criminalizing abortion. In striking down those laws, it identified a new fundamental right – the right of a woman to have an abortion, at essentially any time during her pregnancy and for whatever reason. It decided the case of Roe v. Wade.
States are allowed to regulate a wide variety of actions in the interest of protecting the people within its borders. These are the laws that are pursuant to its vast “police powers” – the power to regulate for the health, safety, welfare,, and morality of its citizens. These are the powers reserved to the states under the 10th Amendment, and the powers intended to remain with each state. Aside from these police powers (the 10th Amendment), the Constitution puts certain limits the states’ authority to regulate. One of those limits is when there is an individual liberty right at stake. (And not just any “liberty right” at that; the right at stake must have been a recognized liberty right at the time the 14th Amendment was adopted, which was 1868. For any other asserted liberty right, the Constitution would need to be amended per Article V’s amendment process. See the Appendix at the end of the article). In Roe v. Wade, Norma McCorvey (aka, petitioner Roe) argued that the Constitution protected her liberty to choose to have an abortion, and that that right was paramount to the state’s right to regulate abortion.
Disregarding the Court’s established jurisprudence regarding the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment, the Supreme Court agreed with McCorvey.
In a 7-2 opinion written by Justice Harry Blackmun, the Supreme Court declared the right to an abortion is a fundamental liberty right that the state can only limit thru regulation if that regulation furthers a very strong state interest (a “compelling state interest”) and is narrowly-tailored to achieve that interest. That is, it cannot be overbroad. The Court then went on to conclude that a woman’s liberty right in controlling whether or not she is pregnant (hence, her right to choose to have an abortion) is stronger than the state’s interest in banning abortions outright.
Justice Blackmun wrote: “[Although] the Constitution does not explicitly mention any right of privacy … the Court has recognized that a right of personal privacy, or a guarantee of certain areas or zones of privacy, does exist under the Constitution. … This right of privacy, whether it be founded in the 14th Amendment’s concept of personal liberty and restrictions upon state action, as we feel it is, or, as the District Court determined, in the 9th Amendment’s reservation of rights to the people, is broad enough to encompass a woman’s decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy. … We, therefore, conclude that the right of personal privacy includes the abortion decision, but that this right is not unqualified and must be considered against important state interests in regulation.”
Blackmun also addressed the very controversial issue of whether a fetus is a “person” within the meaning of that word in the 14th Amendment. He continued:
“The Constitution does not define ‘person’ in so many words. … The use of the word is such that it has application only postnatally.… This persuades us that the word ‘person,’ as used in the 14th Amendment, does not include the unborn. … In areas other than criminal abortion, the law has been reluctant to endorse any theory that life, as we recognize it, begins before live birth or to accord legal rights to the unborn except in narrowly defined situations and except when the rights are contingent upon live birth. … In short, the unborn have never been recognized in the law as persons in the whole sense.”
Blackmun then summarized the “balancing of competing interests” at stake in the issue of pregnancy and abortion in what has become known as “the Trimester Test”:
“A state criminal abortion statute of the current Texas type, that excepts from criminality only a life-saving procedure on behalf of the mother without regard to pregnancy stage and without recognition of the other interests involved, is violative of the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment. a) For the stage prior to approximately the end of the first trimester, the abortion decision and its effectuation must be left to the medical judgment of the pregnant woman’s attending physician. b) For the stage subsequent to approximately the end of the first trimester, the State, in promoting its interest in the health of the mother, may, if it chooses, regulate the abortion procedure in ways that are reasonably related to maternal health. c) For the stage subsequent to viability, the State in promoting its interest in the potentiality of human life may, if it chooses, regulate and even proscribe, abortion except where it is necessary, in appropriate medical judgment, for the preservation of the life or health of the mother.”
The opinion would go on to explain that the “health of the mother” does not necessarily only mean physical health. An abortion in the third trimester can be justified for any reason related to physical health, mental health, psychological well-being, age (being too young), familial (meaning the family wants the baby aborted), or even financial well-being. Even if the woman feels stressed from the pregnancy, she would be within her right to abort her later-term baby for “health” reasons. In other words, the opinion basically established the rule that a woman’s right to an abortion always outweighs the right to life for the unborn. Since 1973, Roe v. Wade has stood for the legal principle that a woman can have an abortion at any point in her pregnancy for any reason whatsoever, and neither the federal government nor any state can place any pre-conditions or restrictions on a woman’s right to that abortion. In other words, Roe assures women the right to an abortion on demand.
The infamous Roe decision (and its companion case, Doe v. Bolton) was the opinion of 7 out of 9 members of the court. Two justices dissented – Justice Byron White and Justice William Rehnquist. Justice White believed the Court created a new right not envisioned by the Constitution and both he and Justice Rehnquist believed the question of abortion was a state matter covered by the 10th Amendment.
Justice White wrote, in his dissenting opinion [… ]