What is Roe v Wade?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 03 October 2019
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Roe v Wade was a landmark Supreme Court Decision in 1973 that legalized abortion in the first trimester for American women. The Court determined that abortion in the first trimester was protected by a right to privacy for citizens. Roe v Wade galvanized both sides of the abortion debate, and is often cited as a turning point in the history of reproductive and women's rights in America.

Roe v Wade began with a pregnant Texas woman who was given the alias of Jane Roe, along with another pregnant women from Georgia. Both women came from states with heavy proscriptions against abortion, and they challenged the legality of the state laws before the Supreme Court. Ultimately, the Supreme Court determined that state restrictions on first trimester abortion were in conflict with the Fourteenth Amendment.

The actual content of Roe v Wade is a source of some confusion. The decision did not legalize all abortion, but only abortion in the first trimester of pregnancy. Roe v Wade also determined that only qualified medical professionals should perform abortions. After the first trimester, individual states may enact their own laws, as long as the legislation is “reasonably related to maternal health,” according to the text of the decision. After a fetus has reached a viable age, states may restrict abortion in a variety of ways, including an outright ban.


Prior to Roe v Wade, abortion was regulated on a state by state basis. There were a variety of laws surrounding abortion, with many states banning it altogether. Other states required proof of extenuating medical conditions, such as threat to the life of the mother, to approve an abortion. Roe v Wade determined a national standard which the states were expected to follow, although later court decisions, such as Planned Parenthood v Casey in 1992, undermined parts of Roe v Wade.

Many opponents of Roe v Wade have suggested that the decision was in fact unconstitutional, because the Constitution does not guarantee a right to privacy, although it does ensure other personal rights. The Fourteenth Amendment includes a clause about restrictions to personal freedom, which was presumably the section of the amendment that Justice Harry Blackmun, who wrote the majority opinion, had in mind. The Supreme Court is charged with interpreting the intent of the Constitution, and supporters of the Roe v Wade decision have argued that the majority decision reflected the intent of a right to privacy for Americans.

Roe v Wade is a controversial court decision, and has been challenged many times since 1973. The text of the majority decision reflects the controversy, with Justice Blackmun commenting on the sensitive nature of the decision and indicating that the Supreme Court attempted to reach a decision on the basis of legal precedent rather than emotional or moral grounds. The opinion of the majority in the case appears to have withstood the test of time and legal trials, however, and is considered to be an important part of the body of American legal literature.


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