Roe v. Wade

410 U.S. 113 (1973)
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Petitioners brought this challenge to provisions of the Texas Penal Code, which prohibited anyone from procuring or attempting an abortion, except on “medical advice for the purpose of saving the life of the mother.”

Petitioner Jane Roe was an unmarried, pregnant woman who sought to terminate her pregnancy by an abortion “performed by a competent, licensed physician, under safe, clinical conditions.” She was, however, unable to do so in Texas because her life did not appear threatened by her continued pregnancy. She was unable to travel to another jurisdiction in order to secure a legal abortion under safe conditions because she could not afford to do so. Roe claimed the Texas abortion law was unconstitutionally vague and violated her right to privacy.

The second petitioner was a licensed physician who alleged he had been arrested for violations of the Texas abortion law and that two such prosecutions were pending against him. He claimed that in many cases he was unable to determine whether a patient fell within the exception allowing for an abortion for “the purpose of saving the life of the mother.” Petitioner claimed the Texas abortion law violated his own and his patients’ rights to privacy in the doctor-patient relationship and his own right to practice medicine.

Petitioners John and Mary Doe were a childless couple. Mrs. Doe suffered from a neurological disorder and her physician advised her to avoid pregnancy until her condition improved; although a pregnancy at that time would not have presented “a serious risk” to her life. Pursuant to medical advice, Mrs. Doe had discontinued use of birth control pills. In the case that she became pregnant, she wanted to terminate her pregnancy by an abortion performed by a competent, licensed physician under safe, clinical conditions.  The Does made constitutional claims similar to that of Roe.

The Court held that a woman has a constitutional right to terminate her pregnancy protected under the right to privacy implicit in the substantive right to due process of law under the Fourteenth Amendment. The Court declared the Texas abortion law void as vague and overbroad in violation of the right to privacy.

The Court held that the State had two legitimate interests in regulating abortions—protecting prenatal life and protecting the mother's health— and that a woman’s right to terminate her pregnancy must be balanced against these two interests. The Court held that the State’s interests became stronger over the course of a pregnancy, and that the balancing test must be resolved by tying State regulation of abortion to the mother's trimester of pregnancy. The Court held as follows:

  • In the first trimester, the State's two interests in regulating abortions were at their weakest, and the State could not restrict a woman's right to an abortion in any way;
  • In the second trimester, there was an increase in the risks that an abortion posed to maternal health, and the State was permitted to regulate the abortion procedure only "in ways that [were] reasonably related to maternal health" (as defined in the companion case of Doe v. Bolton, 410 U.S. 179 (1973));
  • In the third trimester, there was an increase in viability rates and a corresponding greater State interest in prenatal life, and the State was permitted to choose to restrict or proscribe abortion as it saw fit, except where it was “necessary, in appropriate medical judgment, for the preservation of the life or health of the mother.”

The Court also held that the word “person,” as used in the Fourteenth Amendment, did not apply to an unborn fetus. The Court, however, declined to decide when, as a matter of law, life begins. It acknowledged the considerable ongoing debate in the areas of law, medicine, philosophy and theology as to this determination and concluded that the judiciary was not qualified to decide the issue definitively.

“This right of privacy, whether it be founded in the Fourteenth Amendment's concept of personal liberty and restrictions upon state action, as we feel it is, or, as the District Court determined, in the Ninth Amendment's reservation of rights to the people, is broad enough to encompass a woman's decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy.” Page 153.

“We, therefore, conclude that the right of personal privacy includes the abortion decision, but that this right is not unqualified and must be considered against important state interests in regulation.” Page 154.

“[W]e do not agree that, by adopting one theory of life, Texas may override the rights of the pregnant woman that are at stake.” Page 162.