Roe v Wade


Few issues have emerged to be as divisive and as controversial in the United States as abortion. This remains a topic that has put the liberals and the conservatives on the crossing path with each side remaining steadfast in its argument regarding the appropriateness or the inappropriateness of abortion. The role of state in regard to the issue has also bee widely discussed. Though many decisions concerning abortion have been upheld by the Supreme Court, none has remained a landmark and a cause of a major storm than the Roe v Wade decision. Roe v Wade held that existing laws prohibiting abortion were a grave violation of the right to privacy as outlined in the fourteenth amendment. (Devettere 350). In the ruling hence, “the U.S Supreme Court declared to be invalid all state laws restricting abortion in the three months of pregnancy using the right to privacy as the basis for the decision.” (Suzanne & Suzanne 581)

Background to the Ruling

The history to this magnanimous ruling finds its roots in Texas where a single woman popularly referred to as Roe was gang raped on her way home. She afterwards discovered she was pregnant and sought to carry out an abortion. This came at a time when groups of women were seeking to challenge the existing laws in regard to abortion and were seeking support to have abortion legalized. The woman was referred to as Jane Roe in order to conceal her real identity. The state in the case was represented by Henry Wade the then district attorney (George & Nina 362).  The decision reached by the district court was in favor of Jane Roe but it did not go ahead to decriminalize the enforcement of the abortion laws in Texas.  This decision was appealed by the state in the United States Supreme Court where with a majority it agreed to quash the abortion laws. With the decision then, the then states laws prohibiting abortion were quashed on the basis that abortion is a fundamental right to a woman. According to the ruling, a woman had an exclusive right to terminate a pregnancy during the first trimester. This has been seen as a landmark court ruling as it legalized abortion at a time when most states were carrying out strict enforcement to the existing ban on abortion.

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History of Abortion in America

            A look at the historical foundations reveals that abortion it was initially held as an appropriate method of birth control. Up to the 1900, abortion was not regarded as a crime and as Payment (8) mentions, by then, “as many as one out of five pregnancies was ended by an abortion.” However, in the early 19th century, states began issuing a flurry of legislations aimed at restricting women from carrying out abortions, a legislation that was enacted for both moral and health considerations. Abortion hence ceased to be a common practice and if carried out could only be done discreetly. In the mid 20th century, efforts intensified to legalize abortion to ensure it was carried out safely by doctors. It is as a result of this activism that a number of states legalized abortion or in the least removed the stringent restrictions. There still remained restrictions in some states leading to a high number of dangerous illegal abortions. In Texas, for example, abortion was strictly illegal and could only be carried out if a woman’s life was endangered. Women had to travel to Mexico for abortion due to the strict laws in Texas, “it was legal there but it was not always safe, and it was not cheap.’ (Payment 10)

The Ruling

Coming from such a background of moral strictness and yearn for sexual liberalization; it is hence enough to understand the kind of passion and sentiments that the Roe v Wade was able to arouse. To a group of rising feminists, the Roe v Wade was a perfect mechanism to deliver themselves from the yoke of traditional conservatism. To the majority conservatives, it was an attempt to sneak in laws supporting immorality. This was recognized in the ruling. Indeed, upon making of the decision, Justice Harry Blackmun noted that the decriminalization of abortion by the common law was meant to instill a sense of Victorian culture that frowned upon illicit affairs. The law had been enacted to protect women from possible health dangers that would arise from abortion. The law had also been greatly enforced in the common law in the belief that “the state had an interest in protecting maternal and fetal life.” (Suzanne & Suzanne 582). The court in making the decision observed that the right to privacy may not have been explicitly provided for by the constitution but the Fourteenth and the Ninth Amendments provides for personal liberty, a woman’s decision in regard to the termination of pregnancy is well covered by this (Garrow 378). The decision however noted that the issue of abortion was still within the precincts of states jurisdiction contrary to the argument that a state does not have adequate interests. The bothersome issue of whether a fetus should have states and constitutional protection was also addressed by the court. The court however observed that it was not legally mandated to arbitrarily point out when a fetus could be accorded constitutional protection, only it could determine the extent to which women should have a right to abortion. It is hence important to point out that the issue of trimesters was introduced in order to deliver a delicate balance between a woman’s right in regard to her own body and the role of the state in ensuring her health. In the ruling hence, the court observed that it was against the law for the state to deny women the right to abortion in the first trimester (Scott 52). It further stated that in the second trimester, the state can only do so should it be established that there is a likelihood of a health complication after an abortion. In the third trimester however, the court stated that the state has enough ground to restrict abortion (Frayser, & Whitby 232).

Abortion Controversy

In line with the topic at hand, it is of essence to examine the raging controversy of abortion and also mixed reaction elicited by the ruling from the public. The issue of abortion, a couple of decades after the Roe v Wade continues to elicit mixed feelings pitting the pro life against the pro choice. The pro life refers to a group of individuals and activists that are against abortion in the belief that life is sacred and commences at conception (Jacoby 35). To the pro life, any destruction of the fetus or the embryo is tantamount to destruction of life and hence immoral. The effects of abortion hence cannot be mitigated upon by the purported benefits that it brings to women as it is always conducted at the expense of the unborn. Abortion has continued to be opposed on both ethical and medical grounds (Youngblood 1). To the pro-life, life begins at conception and mothers have the moral duty to uphold life. One of the vehement opponents of abortion among the conservatives is the Catholic Church which was at the forefront in criticizing the Roe v Wade decision. To the church, abortion goes against the principle of the sanctity of life and hence it is sinful for a woman to carry out an abortion. Such an act is tantamount to murder (Paul & Clyde 77). The principle of utilitarianism has also been brought in either for the defense or opposition to abortion. It asserts that a decision should always be sanctioned after ascertaining whether it stands for the greater good of those involved. Abortion hence should only be carried out if the fetus is not old enough to experience pain (Allan 77).

            To the pro-choice, the decision of whether or not to carry out an abortion should entirely be left to the woman; the state hence should not have a mandate over a woman’s body. Sexuality and fertility of a woman should be her sole prerogative a so should be the fate of her pregnancy (Mankiller 561). This is the view held by the liberal pro-choice. There are a number of reasons cited for the raging support for abortion rights. The most important revolves around individual liberty and the non interference of the state. Abortion is purely seen as an affair that is concerns a woman’s health and hence the legal impediments and restrictions erected by the state should be non existent (Finkelman 49). The second major reason fronted by the pro-choice activists is to maintain the medical welfare of women. Abortion since eternity has always been a controversial topic and is always seen as an important form of contraception (Trager 14). Legal impediments on the issue however results to women procuring abortion from back alleys hence endangering their lives. In the knowledge that abortion continues to take place whether legally sanctioned or not, it is hence the prerogative of the state to remove the existing legal restrictions to ensure the availability of medical assistance and services should a woman decide to terminate her pregnancy. Legal bans on the practice are hence perilous to a woman’s life (Lawrence & Robert 4).

Response from the Politicians

The decision held in Roe v Wade elicited mixed sentiments even from influential politicians like the successive seating presidents. Most republicans in office have voiced their opposition, among the democrats; it is Bill Clinton and Obama that have come out strongly in the ruling’s support maintaining that the case provides foundations for abortion legalization (Dombrink, & Hillyard 133). Studies that exist on the impact of Roe and Wade admit that it not only led to an upsurge in the number of abortions but it also led to decreased deaths from illegal abortions due to the fact that there now exist proper medical procedures for the practice. The dangers posed by abortion to women seeking substandard medical procedures were hence greatly reduced (Caenegem 116).


The importance of the Roe v Wade ruling as has been observed cannot be underestimated. It touched at the heart of a topic that had become sensitive especially in the public court. It was made at a time when the rising groups of feminists were pushing for less strict laws in regard to abortion believing it was a basic right for women to control their bodies. With the ruling legalizing abortion it watered down all the existing laws that had existed banning abortion leading to most states to approach the debate of abortion with a more open mind. Women could now make informed decisions on the issue and medical advances on the issue have eradicated the prior medical dangers associated with abortion.

Works Cited

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Schenken, Suzanne & Suzanne. From Suffrage to the Senate: An Encyclopedia of          American Women in Politics. ABC-CLIO, 1999, 578-583

Payment, Simone. Roe V. Wade: The Right to Choose. The Rosen Publishing Group,     2004, 7-11

Balkin, J. M.. What Roe V. Wade Should Have Said: The Nation’s Top Legal Experts    Rewrite America’s Most Controversial Decision. NYU Press, 2005

Roe v. Wade. Forgotten Books

Maienschein, Jane. Whose View of Life?: Embryos, Cloning, and Stem Cells. Harvard   University Press, 2003

Dombrink, John & Hillyard, Daniel.  Sin No More: From Abortion to Stem Cells,           Understanding Crime, Law, and Morality in America.  NYU Press, 2007, 133

Paul, Lawrence & Clyde. The Catholic Church and the Nation-state: Comparative          Perspectives. Georgetown University Press, 2006, 77

Allan, Mark.  The Rhetoric of Operation Rescue: Projecting the Christian Pro-life           Message. Continuum International Publishing Group, 2006, 84

Finkelman, Paul. Encyclopedia of American Civil Liberties. CRC Press, 2006, 49

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Trager, Oliver. Abortion: Choice & Conflict. Facts on File, 1993, 114

Caenegem, R. C.  An Historical Introduction to Western Constitutional Law. Cambridge           University Press, 1995, 161

Jacoby, Kerry. Souls, Bodies, Spirits: The Drive to Abolish Abortion Since 1973.            Greenwood Publishing Group, 1998, 35

George & Nina . Legal aspects of health care administration. Jones & Bartlett Publishers,           2004, 362

Mankiller. The Reader’s Companion to U. S. Women’s History. Houghton Mifflin           Harcourt, 1999, 516

Scott A Merriman, Inc NetLibrary, ABC-CLIO Information Services. Religion and the Law in America an Encyclopedia of Personal Belief and Public Policy. ABC-              CLIO, 2007, 56

Wingood, Gina & DiClemente, Ralph. Handbook of Women’s Sexual and Reproductive            Health. Springer, 2002, 17

Youngblood, Mark. The Pro-life/choice Debate. Greenwood Publishing Group , 1

Ruthven, Malise. Fundamentalism: The Search for Meaning. Oxford University Press,                2005, 113

Frayser, Suzanne ; Whitby,  Thomas. Studies in Human Sexuality: A Selected Guide

            . Libraries Unlimited, 1995, 232

Garrow, David J. Liberty and Sexuality: The Right to Privacy and the Making of Roe V.           Wade. University of California Press, 1998, 378

Martin Harrop. Power and Policy in Liberal Democracies. Cambridge University Press, 1992, 115

Paul Harvey, Philip Goff. The Columbia Documentary History of Religion in America   Since 1945. Columbia University Press, 2005, 274



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