In 1970 a pregnant, unmarried woman sought to have the Texas anti-abortion
statute, first enacted in the 1850s, declared unconstitutional.
To protect her anonymity she was given the fictitious name Jane
Roe. The initial action was against Henry Wade, District Attorney
of Dallas County, Texas. Roe claimed that the statute was unconstitutionally
vague and violated her right of privacy as guaranteed by the First,
Fourth, Fifth, Ninth, and Fourteenth Amendments. The case was
argued before the Supreme Court in December of 1971 and reargued
in October of 1972.
In January of 1973 the case was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.
A majority of 7 to 2 declared the Texas statute unconstitutional.
Justice Harry Blackmun, an appointee of President Richard Nixon,
wrote the opinion for the majority. Justice William Rehnquist,
another Nixon appointee and now Chief Justice, filed a dissenting
opinion. Justice White concurred with Justice Rehnquist.
A majority on the Court agreed that Roe had a right of privacy
based on the 14th amendment and on earlier Supreme Court decisions.
They also agreed that this right was "broad enough to encompass
a woman's decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy."
However, they denied that this right was "absolute"
(i.e., that "she is entitled to terminate her pregnancy at
whatever time, in whatever way, and for whatever reason she alone
chooses.") There were compelling state interests in "safeguarding
health" and "protecting potential life" that could
The decision outlined a trimester framework as a way to sort and
balance these varied interests. The framework limited state regulation
The opinion also stated that the judiciary is "not in a position
to speculate" as to when "life begins" and that
the Constitution does not use the word "person" in a
way that indicates "with any assurance, that it has any possible
Nearly all state laws against abortion became unenforceable after
Roe. In a series of decisions, many new state regulations
were struck down. For example, a woman could not be required to
obtain the consent of her child's father. A minor could not be
required in all cases to obtain the consent of her parents. On
the other hand, those who were opposed to abortion also had some
success. Federal funding of abortions was greatly restricted.
During the 1980s, appointments by President Ronald Reagan changed
the Court's philosophical makeup and suggested that Roe
might be overturned or limited in the future. A major shift was
evident in the 1989 decision in William Webster v. Reproductive
In Webster the Court upheld a Missouri law that restricted the
performance of abortions in public hospitals to cases in which
the mother's life was threatened. The law also required tests
for viability if the physician believed that the fetus was at
least 20 weeks old. Justice Rehnquist called the trimester framework
unsound and unworkable. Webster was interpreted on every side
of the political debate as a turning point.
The Court has gone on to allow some minor adjustments to Roe. In July of 1992, in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, it upheld several provisions in a Pennsylvania law on abortion. While not overturning Roe, the decision allowed certain restrictions even in the first trimester if they did not constitute an "undue burden." Future decisions may return even greater control of abortion to state legislatures as the meaning of "undue burden" is clarified.