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In 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court recognized a woman’s constitutional right to an abortion in Roe v. Wade. The landmark ruling legalized abortion across the country but divided public opinion and has been under fire ever since.
The case was filed in 1971 by Norma McCorvey, a 22-year-old living in Texas who was unmarried and seeking an termination of her unwanted pregnancy.
Due to state law that prohibits abortion unless the mother’s life is in danger, she was unable to undergo the procedure in a safe and legal environment.
So McCorvey sued Henry Wade, the Dallas district attorney, in 1970. The case went to the Supreme Court, filing Roe vs. Wade, to protect McCorvey’s privacy.
Supreme Court decision
The Supreme Court pronounced the 7-2 decision that a woman’s right to make her own medical decisions, including choosing to have an abortion, is protected by the 14th Amendment.
In particular, that the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment provides a basic “right to privacy” that protects a woman’s freedom to choose whether or not to have an abortion.
…nor shall any state deprive a person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law
Under the landmark ruling, abortions were decriminalized in 46 states, but under certain specific conditions that individual states could decide. For example, states could decide whether abortions were allowed only during the first and second trimesters, but not in the third trimester (usually after 28 weeks).
Among pro-choice campaigners, the decision was hailed as a victory, meaning fewer women would become seriously — or even fatally — ill from abortions performed by unqualified or unlicensed practitioners. In addition, freedom of choice was considered an important step in the fight for equal opportunities for women in the country. Victims of rape or incest could have the pregnancy terminated and not feel coerced into motherhood.
However, pro-lifers argued that it was tantamount to murder and that every life, however conceived, is precious. While the decision has never been reversed, anti-abortion activists have since pushed hundreds of state laws to narrow the ruling’s scope.
One was the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act, signed by President George W. Bush in 2003, which banned a procedure used to perform second-trimester abortions.
McCorvey lived a quiet life until the 1980s, when she introduced herself as Jane Roe
Norma McCorvey (Jane Roe)
After the verdict, McCorvey lived a quiet life until the 1980s, when she revealed herself as Jane Roe. McCorvey became a leading, vocally pro-abortion voice in American discourse, even working at a women’s clinic where abortions were performed.
However, she made an unlikely turnaround in 1995, became a born-again Christian and began traveling around the country speaking out against the procedure.
In 2003, she filed a motion to overturn her original 1973 ruling in the US District Court in Dallas. The motion went through the courts until it was finally rejected by the Supreme Court in 2005.
McCorvey died in February 2017 at the age of 69 in an assisted living facility in Texas.
‘The Heartbeat Account’
Multiple governors have signed legislation banning abortion if a doctor can detect a so-called “fetal heartbeat,” as part of a concerted effort to limit abortion rights in states across the country.
Under the ban, doctors will be prosecuted for breaking the rules.
Abortion rights advocates see the “heartbeat bills” as virtual bans because “fetal heartbeats” can be detected as early as six weeks, when women may not know they are pregnant.
Anti-abortion activists have stepped up their efforts since Donald Trump was elected president and appointed two conservative justices to the US Supreme Court, hoping they can convince the right-wing court to re-examine Roe v. Wade.
Georgia, Ohio, Missouri and Louisiana recently enacted “heartbeat laws,” and Alabama passed an even stricter version in May, amounting to an almost complete ban on abortion from the time of conception. Other states are pending similar legislation.
Similar laws have also been passed in Arkansas, Mississippi, North Dakota, Iowa, and Kentucky, though they have been blocked by courts as legal proceedings have been initiated against them.