Everything You Need to Know About Roe v. Wade

Falling down stairs. Drinking home remedies. Using a coat hanger.

Before Roe v. Wade, trying to end an unwanted pregnancy exposed thousands to danger. If they couldn’t afford to visit an abortionist illegally, they’d try to end the pregnancy anyway.

It didn’t matter what politicians thought about what they should do with their bodies.

“What propelled Roe was that we had dead women everywhere,” Fran Moreland Johns tells ThinkProgress.

Forty four years later, President Donald Trump is reinstating the Reagan-era global gag rule, and many worry about the fate of Roe v. Wade.

With all this discussion, it’s easy to feel behind on the facts. Here’s a primer on the landmark ruling.

What exactly is Roe v. Wade?

Roe v. Wade is a 1973 Supreme Court decision that found state bans on abortion to be unconstitutional.

A pregnant single woman under the pseudonym Jane Roe brought the class action suit after she couldn’t find a doctor in Texas to terminate her third pregnancy at age 22. She’d had the baby and put the kid up for adoption by the time the courts passed down the ruling.

What rights does Roe v. Wade guarantee?

If you’re pregnant, you have a right to abortion.

The ruling also draws parameters where states can limit access in the second and third trimesters.

Why did Roe v. Wade pass?

Justices ruled 7-2 that state abortion bans were too vague and infringed on plaintiffs’ Ninth and Fourteenth Amendment rights, which include privacy.

During the 1950s and ’60s, the highest estimates suggest as many as 1.2 million illegal abortions happened. Abortions caused nearly 20 percent of deaths related to pregnancy and childbirth, disproportionately hurting poor women and those of color.

Now legal, the procedure is one of the safest.

Didn’t the woman who spearheaded Roe v. Wade become an anti-abortion activist later?

Yes.

Norma McCorvey, who went by the pseudonym Jane Roe, was active on both sides of the abortion debate throughout her lifetime.

In the 1970s and ’80s, McCorvey filed the lawsuit and worked at a Dallas women’s health clinic, which performed abortions. She became a born-again Christian in the mid-1900s and started working for Operation Rescue, an anti-abortion organization.

She died this February at 69.

Was abortion always illegal before Roe?

No. As Eleanor Cooney notes in Mother Jones, women often used plants and potions to end pregnancies in the 19th century. Legislation in the 1820s and 1830s intended to cut down on poisoning.

“According to several historians of the issue, as abortion—both through drugs and direct procedures—became a bigger and bigger commercial venture, ‘orthodox’ physicians, who were competing with midwives, homeopaths, and self-styled practitioners of all stripes, pushed to make abortion illegal. The nascent American Medical Association established its dominance over lay practitioners through abortion laws, and women were kept in their place,” Cooney writes. “Eugenics played a role, too: With ‘undesirables’ breeding prolifically, motherhood was hailed as a white woman’s patriotic duty, abortion a form of treason. By the mid-1800s, most of the ‘folk’ knowledge had been lost and abortion became ‘infanticide.’” 

What rules restrict reproductive access?

The Hyde Amendment stops Medicaid and other taxpayer-funded insurance plans from covering abortion, even though they cover other pregnancy-related procedures.

Furthermore, 25 states have passed their own restrictive laws on abortion providers and patients.

What are the consequences of Roe v. Wade?

The decision has far-reaching consequences for reproductive health and women’s rights overall. For one, it saved thousands of lives by providing access to safe, legal abortion.

Now, women are 14 times more likely to die in childbirth than when getting an abortion.

Will the courts overturn Roe v. Wade?

No one knows.

Trump’s Supreme Court nomination of the conservative Neil Gorsuch makes supporters of abortion rights uneasy. And if Trump gets to replace a liberal justice with a conservative one as well, the courts might lean toward upholding abortion restrictions state-by-state, rather than formally overturning Roe v. Wade.

As political scientist Jeffrey Segal tells FiveThirtyEight“They might not overturn a precedent right away, but they start chipping away at it until they can say, ‘Look, this precedent just isn’t workable and it’s time for it to go.’”

What would happen if Roe v. Wade was overturned?

Who gets abortion rights would go back to the states.

According to the Center for Reproductive Rights, over 37 million Americans could live in areas that make abortion illegal.

Those who live in the South and Central U.S. are especially vulnerable, especially if they’re too poor to travel across state lines for the procedure.

How has the U.S. abortion rate changed over the years?

The abortion rate is the lowest today it’s ever been since Roe v. Wade.

According to Guttmacher Institute, 14.6 abortions happen for every 1,000 women of childbearing age. This is half of the peak abortion rate in the early 1980s.

The study’s author credit better access to contraception as a factor in the lower rate and say the Affordable Care Act helped.

How do Americans feel about Roe v. Wade?

They generally support it.

According to the Pew Research Center, 7 in 10 Americans say the ruling shouldn’t be completely overturned. Around 6 in 10 support abortion in all or most cases.

What can I do to support Roe v. Wade?

  • Educate yourself about abortions, contraception and reproductive health access. Some good documentaries include After Tiller, No Woman, No Cry, and Jackson.
  • Act as a clinic escort to support people who want to practice their constitutional right to end unwanted pregnancies.
  • Don’t forget to hold anti-abortion opponents accountable: Ask them about their plans for supporting people who can’t afford or take care of kids.
  • Care2‘s Lauren Longo has other ideas for protecting women’s rights, as well.

Photo Credit: Thinkstock

127 comments

Marie W
Marie Wabout a year ago

Thanks for sharing!

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Sarah H
Sarah Hillabout a year ago

This is an example of judicial activism. These justices wrote law, which is NOT their job, it's Congress' job.

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Carl R
Carl Rabout a year ago

thanks!!!

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Ron G
Past Member about a year ago

Within the constructs of mankind , God gave the man a duty with great responsibility , He is to lead his wife and family to follow the right ways . He is to do it by EXAMPLE ...NOT FORCE ! Men have inherited the characteristics to enable them to do it . It is the duty God has instructed him to do . The males AREN'T CREATED SUPERIOR TO WOMEN ....they are created EQUAL . they each have their duties to perform . In today's world , men have FAILED in their duties ....so much so they even CAUSE many of the problems . Not ALL men are the same of course , I'm speaking generally . Now , so often women are entering situations they aren't designed for . ...their characters are different ...not inferior . It happened in biblical times too .
ALL the problems this world is facing is the fault of humanity ....NOT GOD ! The laws that man constructs are so often not within the bounds of morality....they even create far more problems , particularly the ones concerning sex and reproduction . Abortion is a form of sacrifice to the god of humanism . The woman is placed in a situation she shouldn't be in . She isn't alone in reproduction but so often she is left that way ....and so the baby is killed . When new life is formed , it's a 3 way tie ....male , female AND GOD . He is the only one able to give life . He is of NO GENDER ...neither male OR FEMALE ! ....contrary to what so many insist on here.

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Ron G
Past Member about a year ago

Karen ,,,,,, you obviously have concerns about the issues you have raised here . But the same one who caused the FALL in Eden does not want you to find the truth about them . He ( Satan) wants you to continue to be in the state you are now in ( or worse ) . He causes those who , because they do not believe , to wallow in the same mud they themselves are . There is nothing more they hate than to have the Gospel dispute the lies they follow . Eternity is FAR more important then believing lies ....it is YOUR LIFE ...NOT THEIRS .
Israel was to bring that Gospel to the world . The book of Leviticus is about the laws which God instructed to that race because of the Fall in Eden Until then , sin was unknown so God's instructions are to show the state mankind is in between Himself and them. At the time paganism had entered life with all it's cultish rites . That involved sacrifices to their gods and that carnal sexual union was their fertility rite . It defiled the very thing God had given man to reproduce and made them UNCLEAN . So sin generally was rife which meant there were many issues which had to be addressed . How could such a condition be allowed to introduce the very reason they were the Chosen Race for ? The Israelites had already fallen into that trap before .

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pam w
pam wabout a year ago

Oh, Karen...you've invited more proselytizing. Understand that a proselytizer LIVES to babble cultish religious superstition on every possible occasion.

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Ron G
Past Member about a year ago

Karen.....It's a very involved question you ask . ...but the reason is simple . First , it is imperative that we understand just what we are dealing with . You read out the verse in Genesis of God's creation of mankind ...." And He saw that it was good " .What God is seeing is that the creation of Mankind WAS PERFECT ...no flaws .But how that changed when Adam and Eve sinned ...rebellion . If you understand what Holy means , then where Adam and Eve had a close relationship with God ,it was because there was NO SIN . God CANNOT ABIDE SIN ! Immediately Adam and Eve had introduced the state of law to their successors and every human there after . You speak of uncleanness applied to women but in fact childbearing is related to the FALL . Her monthly period is part of it as it is expelling unused and contaminated blood stored past it's use-by date . There is no shame in that but the laws applied to the Israelites because of the fall deemed her unclean .But then the WHOLE nation of ISRAELITES were under the curse of sin which rendered humanity UNCLEAN . There was no solution within their culture for this curse ...not until Christ came when the new Covenant was introduced that the curse was remedied . And males were also under law .

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Karen H
Karen Habout a year ago

Why is the U.S. government so afraid of contraception? Instead of safe, legal and reversible contraception, the U.S. government has a record of sterilizing women without their knowledge in programs funded by the U.S. government and private individuals. Almost 150 women were illegally subjected to sterilization in California prisons between 2006-2010. Misinformation is a common tool; women are told that their status - related to immigration, housing, government benefits, or parenting - will be negatively impacted if they don't consent to the procedure, and many are told that the procedure is temporary or reversible. It is not. Women in the U.S. have always been subjected to coordinated efforts to control their fertility, including sterilization abuse. Because the U.S. wanted to control the rapid growth of Puerto Rico's population, Law 116 was signed in 1937. By the 1960s, women of childbearing age in Puerto Rico were over 10 times more likely to be sterilized than women from the US. In the past, state laws decided that those "incapable of regulating their own reproductive abilities" should be sterilized. This included minorities, the poor and unwed mothers, some of whom were underage. Sterilization by means of tubal ligation of hysterectomy were used. This is ironic, since we've read stories of women requesting tubal ligation have been turned down "on religious grounds." Guess it depends on whose "religion" they're following.

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Karen H
Karen Habout a year ago

Ron G, if we're speaking of "WHO God is...His character, His person, His attributes", you have to admit he treats females pretty shabbily. In Genesis: "God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them ... God saw all that he had made, and it was very good." Since he told Adam and Eve to be fruitful and multiply, he evidently knew about menstruation and childbirth--after all, he created it. But by Leviticus he decided that menstruation and childbirth made a woman "unclean", and she must not touch anything sacred or go to the sanctuary. If she gives birth to a son, she's unclean for 7 days and must purify herself for 33 days. But - God forbid - she has a daughter, she is unclean for 14 days and needs 66 days of purification. Back in Genesis, after they ate of the forbidden tree, Adam’s punishment was that his herbs would sprout thorns and he would get to rule over Eve. Sounds like more punishment for Eve. Women are to marry their rapists, and they're put to death if they don't scream loud enough while being raped. If a man rapes a female slave, she is punished but his sins are forgiven. Women aren't allowed to speak in church. They must follow their husband in all things. That speaks a lot about God's character, person and attributes.

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Ron G
Past Member about a year ago

Many of the comments here are soley viewed from the worldy perspective .All they do is refer to the problems this world faces but can never address any issue to solve them . humanism with all it's characteristics opposes the very things that God has placed within us such as the morals which are so critical to living as we should . That is why we are ALL BORN WITH THEM WITHIN EACH OF US . Now this world ventures further and further away from God and so thinks it can create it's own morals ....IT'S SELF DESTRUCTIVE . It even instructs our offspring to do likewise . " Roe versus Wade " is one of the most destructive laws the USA has . It doesn't recognise the cause of the problem of abortion but PROMOTES IT by it's policies. It is tryng to deal with the results of the problem rather than the problem itself ....aka ...morality . And so are all the other sexually originated issue being promoted as normal which is directly against God Himself . God creates ALL LIFE .Abortion kills it.

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