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Roe v. Wade

Abortion is a controversial legal subject that's rarely ever spoken or written about without a reference to Roe v. Wade. This is the famous Supreme Court case that not only changed the way abortion is dealt with in the United States, but has also fueled discussions and has shed more light on the protection of human life, women's privacy rights, and constitutional issues regarding state and federal laws on each of these matters. Read on to learn more about the case and how it affects the reproductive rights of women.

The Case

Jane Roe was a pseudonym for Norma McCorvey, an unmarried pregnant Texas woman who sought an abortion, but was denied under Texas law. Roe (with the help of attorneys) filed a federal lawsuit seeking to have the Texas law thrown out as unconstitutional. She argued that a law prohibiting her from obtaining an abortion violated her constitutional right to privacy. The United States Supreme Court (voting 7-2) agreed with Roe that the law criminalizing abortion violated her right to privacy. However, the Court also held that states do have an interest in ensuring the safety and well-being of pregnant women, as well as the potential of human life.

The Ruling

Acknowledging that the rights of pregnant women may conflict with the rights of the state to protect potential human life, the Court defined the rights of each party by dividing pregnancy into three 12-week trimesters:

  • During a pregnant woman's first trimester, the Court held, a state cannot regulate abortion beyond requiring that the procedure be performed by a licensed doctor in medically safe conditions.

  • During the second trimester, the Court held, a state may regulate abortion if the regulations are reasonably related to the health of the pregnant woman.

  • During the third trimester of pregnancy, the state's interest in protecting the potential human life outweighs the woman's right to privacy. As a result, the state may prohibit abortions unless abortion is necessary to save the life or health of the mother.

The Court further held that a fetus is not a person protected by the Constitution.

After Roe v. Wade

Since the Court's decision in Roe v. Wade, judicial interpretation of the constitution is that abortion is legal. However, after Roe, many abortion opponents have been pushing for stricter abortion laws. The opponents haven't been able to ban abortions outright, but have brought about certain exceptions that place limitations on abortions. For example, in Gonzales v. Carhart, a 2007 case, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a nationwide ban on partial birth abortion, a form of late term abortion. A number of states have also placed restrictions on abortions in certain circumstances, including parental notification requirements, mandatory disclosure of abortion risk information, and restrictions on late-term abortions.

Each state may have different restrictions on a woman's right to have an abortion. So it's important to check your state's abortion laws for more specific information.

For more information on the history of abortion, abortion laws, and frequently asked questions, visit Findlaw's Abortion section.

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