Roe v. Wade (Decision January 22, 1973)
In 1971, Norma McCorvey (known in court documents as "Jane Roe") filed a lawsuit against the attorney general of Texas, Henry Wade. McCorvey argued a Texas law banning abortion, which had been enforced against her, was unconstitutional. The Texas law only allowed abortions if necessary to save the woman's life.
Regulation vs. Liberty
States are allowed to regulate a wide variety of actions in the interest of protecting people. But the Constitution limits the states' rights to regulate. In this case, McCorvey argued the Constitution protected her liberty to choose to have an abortion.
The word "liberty" is in the Constitution in the 5th and the 14th Amendments. In both places it says that no person can be deprived of "life, liberty, or property, without due process of law." The 14th Amendment applies to states, and McCorvey argued this limit on state regulation made Texas's abortion ban unconstitutional.
The controversy over the "Due Process" clause
Process and substance are different in law. This case highlights a controversy in legal jurisprudence because some argue the Due Process clause should not be used for defining liberty. In other words, the substance of liberty cannot be determined through in a provision that relates to process. For more information on this controversy (a confusing topic in law), see our infographic explainer on Substantive Due Process.
The Court took the bold move of declaring the right to an abortion a fundamental liberty that the state must have a very strong interest to limit. Our infographic describes how the court balanced the liberty/abortion interest of the woman with the state's interest in prenatal life.
What else did the decision say?
The state might regulate abortion based on reasons other than the concern for prenatal life. The Supreme Court said the state could justify abortion regulation based on the concern for a woman's health, just not before the end of the first trimester.
Jane Roe's Change of Heart
Norma McCorvey - "Roe" herself - the woman who represents the decision - had a surprising change of heart on the issue of abortion later in life. McCorvey started a "pro-life" organization "Roe No More" in 1997 and even filed in court in 2003 to try to have Roe v. Wade overturned. The attempt was unsuccessful.
The future - changes in medical science
"Pro-choice" advocates may have a legitimate concern about the ruling as medical science advances. The Supreme Court ruled that the point of viability is the essential point at which the state's interest in prenatal life outweighs the liberty interest of the woman. But when medical science advances to bring that point of viability to progressively earlier times in the pregnancy, will the abortion bans creep up too? See this article from the Constitution Center for a discussion.
- CNN's "Fast Facts" on the case, including a legal timeline.