Roe v. Wade challenged a Texas law that prohibited abortions except to save a woman's life. At the time, many other states had similar laws. As a result, women had very restricted access to legal abortion. Too often, women who desperately needed abortions resorted to dangerous illegal abortions performed by poorly trained practitioners in unsanitary conditions. Examining the Texas law and the effects that it had on the women of Texas, the Supreme Court ruled that the right to privacy found in the United States Constitution included the right of women to decide whether to have children. The Court was careful to balance the right of a woman seeking an abortion with the states' interest in protecting maternal health and the potential life of the fetus.
Justice Harry Blackmun authored the 7-2 decision. The Court found that the 14th Amendment's guarantees of personal liberty and previous decisions protecting privacy in family matters included a woman's right to terminate her pregnancy. The Court also recognized that the state had valid interests in the health of the woman and the potential life of the fetus. To address these competing interests and rights, the Court divided pregnancy into thirds - or "trimesters" - each constituting about three months of the pregnancy, and employed a balancing test.
The Court ruled that in the first trimester of pregnancy, state laws and regulations may not interfere with a woman's right to terminate a pregnancy. This means that the decision to have an abortion is left in the hands of the woman and her health care provider. During the second trimester, state laws and regulations can regulate abortion in order to protect the woman's health. During the last trimester, and after the fetus is viable (developed enough to survive outside the mother's womb), state laws and regulations may prohibit abortion except when it is necessary to preserve the life or health of the woman. The court applied what is known as "strict scrutiny" analysis, the most stringent level of review. This means that a woman's right to an abortion could only be outweighed by a compelling state interest, and that the state law needed to be narrowly drawn so as not to interfere with a woman's right to an abortion more than necessary. Many laws that have been passed to restrict women's access to legal abortion fail the strict scrutiny test and are therefore invalidated or struck down.
Full text of this decision
In 2005 and 2006, both the House and Senate Judiciary Committees held hearings about Roe v. Wade. Stacked with anti-choice witnesses, these hearings attempted to undermine the longstanding precedent of Roe, a decision 65% of Americans support. Read Vicki Saporta's statement for the most recent hearing on March 2, 2006 (PDF file, 18K).