The 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade established the limited right of a woman to have an abortion. Recognizing that fact, states liberalized their abortion laws following the Supreme Court's decision, but abortion soon became an even more divisive issue in the United States. Groups opposed to abortion, including the Catholic Church, became organized and politically powerful.
After Roe v. Wade, a number of laws and court decisions have continued to shape the landscape of reproductive rights. A brief summary follows.
The Politicization of Abortion Rights
The issue of abortion became a platform issue for all candidates for federal office, including the office of the U.S. president, after Roe v. Wade.
During the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan, an opponent of abortion, used his presidency to argue for a reversal of Roe v. Wade. He appointed C. Everett Koop -- another abortion opponent -- to the position of surgeon general and referred to abortion as a "silent holocaust." Reagan believed that abortion caused pain to the fetus and that the rights of the fetus were not outweighed by the rights of the pregnant woman.
Candidates' stances on abortion rights and access continue to be considered in politics at both the federal and local levels.
Opposition to Abortion
Groups opposed to abortion (known as "pro-life" groups) have worked in various ways to reduce or eliminate entirely abortions in the United States. These groups have sponsored legislation limiting access to abortion and have attempted unsuccessfully to reverse Roe v. Wade by way of a constitutional amendment.
Some groups opposed to abortion attempt to persuade patients not to undergo abortions by demonstrating outside of abortion clinics. In some extreme cases, individuals and groups opposed to abortion have bombed abortion clinics, injuring and killing patients and staff members, or have murdered doctors who provide abortions. Because of these extreme actions, many doctors are unwilling to perform abortions, and many abortion clinics have shut down, making access to abortion difficult in some regions.
Other attempts to reduce the number of abortions have involved eliminating public funding of abortions and even prohibiting health care clinics that receive public funding from counseling women about the option of abortion.
Soon after taking office in 1993, President Bill Clinton effectively reversed federal regulations that prohibited staff members at health care clinics that receive public funding from dispersing information about abortions or referring women to abortion providers. Once this so-called "gag rule" was lifted, these clinics once again were able to give women information about abortion.
Informed/ Parental Consent
Also complicating the issue of abortion rights are rules requiring a woman to get "informed consent" or parental consent. Informed consent involves a requirement that before performing an abortion, an abortion provider must give the patient information about the risks of abortion, alternatives to abortion, the age of the fetus, and the availability of government assistance for carrying the pregnancy to term. Parental consent involves a requirement that a minor wishing to undergo an abortion first obtain consent from her parent or guardian.
The Supreme Court generally has upheld parental consent laws, provided the laws allow a minor the ability to obtain permission to have an abortion from a judge rather than a parent, and provided that the judge's decision take into account the minor's best interests, maturity, and ability to make decisions.
The Court also has generally has upheld laws requiring the notification -- as opposed to consent -- of parents of minors seeking to undergo an abortion. Consent laws have been upheld so long as the laws don't create an undue burden on the woman seeking an abortion. However, the Court hasn't upheld laws requiring a woman to obtain her spouse's permission before undergoing an abortion.
Supreme Court Strikes Down Texas Restrictions on Abortion Clinics
In a major 2016 abortion case ruling, the Supreme Court struck down parts of a restrictive Texas law that would have forced dozens of abortion clinics to close and deny thousands of women legal access to abortion services. Justices in the case, Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, struck down the two-part Texas law which required clinics providing abortion services to meet the same building standards as walk-in surgical centers. The law also required doctors performing abortions to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital within 30 miles of the clinic.
Supporters of the law claimed that it protected the health of patients at Texas abortion clinics. Opponents of the law argued that it was unduly restrictive and would have forced an almost complete shutdown of abortion clinics in the state. The Court's ruling, authored by Justice Stephen Breyer, preserved a woman's right to choose. The court found the Texas law unconstitutional in that it placed tough standards on abortion clinics and would have resulted in an undue burden on women seeking access to abortion.
California Crisis Pregnancy Centers and the Supreme Court
In 2015, California lawmakers a signed a bill into law requiring crisis pregnancy centers -- counseling centers that don't offer abortion services -- to provide notice of public programs that cover additional family planning services, including abortion. However, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the law in a 2018 decision (NIFLA v. Becerra), citing First Amendment free speech protections.
Learn About Abortion Laws After Roe v. Wade: Contact a Lawyer
Laws regarding the right to undergo an abortion continue to evolve. There's little question that abortion will remain a divisive and powerful political issue for decades to come. For more information about abortion laws, speak with a qualified family law attorney in your jurisdiction.