Roe v. Wade's 40th Anniversary: What the Court Actually Decided

By Andrew Lu on January 22, 2013 | Last updated on December 09, 2022

It's Roe v. Wade's 40th anniversary. But while many people may have heard about this famous Supreme Court case, more than half of people under 30 can not say what the case is about, a recent survey found. Here's a hint: It's about abortion. To refresh your memory about exactly what the Supreme Court decided in Roe v. Wade, here's a quick recap of the case on its 40th anniversary: Jane Roe was a pseudonym for an unmarried Texas woman who sought an abortion. However, abortions were prohibited under Texas law. So Roe filed a federal lawsuit seeking to have the Texas law thrown out as unconstitutional. The case worked its way up to the Supreme Court. In 1973, justices ruled 7-2 that the law prohibiting Roe from obtaining an abortion violated her privacy rights. Yet at the same time, the court held that the state had the right to protect potential human life. So the Court defined a woman's right to an abortion by dividing a woman's pregnancy into three 12-week trimesters, as follows:
  • First Trimester. A state cannot regulate abortion beyond requiring that the procedure be performed by a licensed doctor under medically safe conditions.
  • Second Trimester. A state may regulate abortion if the regulations are reasonably related to the health of the pregnant woman.
  • Third Trimester. A state's interest in protecting the potential human life outweighs the woman's right to privacy, and the state may prohibit abortions unless abortion is necessary to save the life or health of the mother.
Almost two decades after this decision, the Supreme Court again ruled on abortions in the case Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey. This 1992 case reaffirmed the woman's right to seek an abortion, but it also carved out some extra regulatory powers for states. Now states could impose waiting periods for abortions, and require that abortion providers explain the risks of abortion to women. These two cases together now form the basis of abortion law in this country. Related Resources:
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