Abortion – should it be legal or illegal? In the United States of America, the Supreme Court made a landmark decision known as Roe v Wade in 1973 that legalized the right to have an abortion. It is part of the Constitution of the United States, meaning that this decision is a “supreme law”, where it will always take priority over other states’ laws that might conflict with this decision. However, on the 24th of June 2022, Roe v Wade was overturned, meaning that each state could now individually create its own abortion laws without interfering with Roe v Wade, which was the “supreme law”. Undoubtedly, many people from different groups will be impacted by this decision, which caused many to react upon the ruling based on their personal beliefs. With approximately 50 years of history, how exactly did Roe v Wade become a landmark decision, and what is the progression over many decades to the point that this law is now overturned?
September 1969: 21-year-old Texan Norma McCorvey– a self-described drunkard and drug addict- found herself pregnant for the third time. Having relinquished the custody of her firstborn to her mother and put her second child up for adoption, McCorvey hoped to get an abortion this time around. However, abortion was illegal in Texas at that time unless the mother’s life was in danger. Thus, as a single woman with very little to her name, McCorvey could not afford to pay for an illegal procedure or travel to the few states where abortion was legal.
May 1970: In dire straits, McCorvey turned to attorneys Sarah Weddington and Linda Coffee, who needed a poster child for their bold attempt at taking on Texas’s antiquated abortion laws. Hence, McCorvey agreed to partake in a lawsuit filed against Henry Wade– the district attorney in the county she called home- under the now-infamous pseudonym Jane Roe. Ultimately, Weddington and Coffee’s pipe dream had materialized in the form of Roe v Wade, giving them the platform to argue that Texas’ abortion laws were unconstitutional as they violated women’s right to privacy. The district court ruled in their favor by agreeing that the laws were indeed unconstitutional, but their request to abolish Texas’ prevailing abortion laws was dismissed. As both parties were unsatisfied with the outcome, the decision was appealed to the Supreme Court. Although McCorvey had already given birth to a baby girl and subsequently put her up for adoption by the end of the year, the fight for women’s right to chart their own course in life was far from over.
January 1973: A tough legal battle that played out over two years culminated in a 7-2 ruling issued by the Supreme Court in favor of Roe, declaring that women had the constitutional right to abortion under the 14th Amendment. The ruling was a pivotal moment for women’s rights in the U.S., as it nullified all state laws that prevented abortion except to save a woman’s life or preserve the woman’s health. However, the court also ruled that the right to privacy was not absolute and that each state still had an interest in protecting maternal health and potential life. The ruling arguably bettered the lives of many women in the U.S. by making abortion safer, more accessible, and less expensive. Nevertheless, the polarizing opinions held by US citizens on abortion due to conflicting political ideologies and religious beliefs meant that the ruling was in a precarious position from its very inception.
September 1976: The Hyde Amendment– which is still in effect to this day- was the first to thwart the landmark ruling by prohibiting the use of federal Medicaid funds for abortion unless it was to save a woman’s life or if the pregnancy was a product of rape or incest. Hence, women living below the poverty line were forced to use money set aside for food, rent, and utilities to fund their abortions. As the women took a long time to accumulate sufficient funds, they had to undergo riskier late-term abortions.
June 1992: Another threat reared its ugly head in the form of the Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v Casey case, where Planned Parenthood filed a suit against Pennsylvania for violating the Roe v Wade decision by making provisions to the state’s Abortion Control Act. Planned Parenthood narrowly won this battle with a 5-4 vote and women’s right to abortion was reaffirmed. Nonetheless, states were now given more leeway in passing laws restricting abortion.
June 2003: In a shocking turn of events, McCorvey herself filed a motion to overturn the 1973 ruling, stating that being a part of Roe V Wade was “the biggest mistake of her life”- a statement she would rescind in her later years. The move felt like a slap in the face to the pro-choice movement and was primarily motivated by McCorvey’s affiliation with an anti-abortion group. However, the motion was dismissed a year later.
November 2016: Republican nominee, Donald Trump was elected the 45th President of the United States. The sweeping changes made by the former premier, namely the appointment of three conservative judges to the supreme court – Brett Kavanaugh, Amy Coney-Barrett, and Neil Gorsuch– set the stage for the eventual reversal of the Roe v Wade decision.
December 2021: The 1973 ruling faced another threat- its ultimate one- in the form of the Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organization case. The case dealt with a Mississippi law that banned abortions after the first 15 weeks of pregnancy, which contradicted both Roe v Wade and Planned Parenthood v Casey.
May 2022: A draft opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito, stating that “Roe was egregiously wrong from the start” and that “Roe and Casey must be overruled” was leaked. This meant that abortion would no longer be a constitutional right for women and that their fates were in the hands of their respective states. In anticipation of the incoming ruling, thirteen states enacted trigger laws that would automatically ban the procedure once Roe v Wade was abolished. Thus, the long-standing debate between pro-choice and pro-life was reinvigorated, with both sides taking to the streets and social media to protest or celebrate the end of the Roe v Wade era.
June 2022: Women across the US found themselves thrust into their grandmothers’ shoes as the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 to uphold the Mississippi law and 5-4 to overturn Roe v Wade. While some of the states’ trigger laws were activated immediately after the ruling, certain states were slated to introduce bans within a month or reintroduce pre-Roe abortion bans. Most of these laws did not seem to make exceptions for rape and incest and their vagueness regarding exceptions for the mother’s life could potentially confuse physicians. However, laws protecting women’s rights to abortion remained intact in 20 states and the District of Columbia, which will become safe havens for women from states that have banned or plan to ban abortion.
Rage and Sorrow
“This is a sad day for the country in my view. But it doesn’t mean the fight’s over. Let me be very clear and unambiguous: the only way we can secure a woman’s right to choose a balance that exists is for Congress to restore the protections of Roe v. Wade as federal law.”Joe Biden, President of the United States
Grey clouds had descended upon the pro-choice activists’ sky and a storm was about to strike down everything they had built in the past few decades. Yet, the leaked draft opinion had not crushed their spirit or weakened their resolve. They were determined to defend women’s right to forge their own paths in life- with or without a child- by retaining access to safe abortions. Thus, they held their heads- and signs declaring phrases such as “Bans off our bodies”, “My body, my choice” and “Keep Abortion Legal” – up high as they protested the inevitable ruling.
However, the sun finally set after shining for 49 years and they were plunged into the darkness once more when Roe v Wade was officially overturned. Pro-choice activists now found themselves in the same position as Weddington and Coffee about half a century ago whereas many pregnant women across the U.S. were now facing the same problem that plagued McCorvey in 1969. Whilst some shed tears for what they perceived as the decimation of a fundamental human right and mourned the loss of women’s autonomy in the US, others were consumed with rage. Most of their anger was directed towards the five Supreme Court Justices who voted against Roe v Wade and was exacerbated by the fact that the same court had upheld the constitutional right to carry a concealed gun for protection only a day before.
Meanwhile, Joe Biden, the President of the US, signed an executive order two weeks after the ruling that attempts to put protections in place for abortion providers and access to reproductive healthcare. However, many pro-choice activists have called this move too little, too late as the White House should have seen the ruling coming sooner. The president, along with other democratic figures such as Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have shared their remorse over Roe v Wade being overturned. Leaders from across the globe, including French President Emmanuel Macron and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, have also expressed that they stand with the women who have had their rights stripped away. Although things seem bleak for the pro-choice movement now, they insist on persevering in their mission to preserve women’s right to abortion and hope to hold anti-abortion politicians accountable at the mid-term elections this autumn.
Hope and Celebration
“Today, Life Won. By overturning Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court of the United States has given the American people a new beginning for life, and I commend the justices in the majority for having the courage of their convictions.”Mike Pence, former Vice-President of the United States
As the nine Justices deliberated the future of women’s right to abortion in the US, hundreds of pro-life activists waited for the verdict with bated breath outside the Supreme Court. Believing that a fetus’ right to life trumped a mother’s right to bodily autonomy, they were thrilled that the 49-year reign of the Roe v Wade ruling may finally come to an end. Its grave had already been dug after the leak of the draft opinion-they were just awaiting the official announcement to sink the final nail in its coffin. So, they closed their eyes and joined their hands in prayer.
Then, it happened- the 49-year-long drought finally passed and it rained champagne as the crowd erupted in cheers and broke out in wide smiles. The crusade that spanned multiple decades had finally paid off for the pro-life movement, with activists screaming the words “We are the post-Roe generation” and “ I am the pro-life generation” at the top of their lungs. To them, this marked a new chapter in US history, where countless innocent lives will be saved.
They weren’t basking in glory alone though as thousands of pro-lifers flocked to social media to share their glee and extend their congratulations. Many conservative figures piped in too, such as former president Donald Trump– who took credit for the decision- and former vice-president Mike Pence. However, Roe v Wade being overturned was only the beginning of the pro-life movement’s relentless fight against abortion, and they will not rest until it becomes a thing of the past nationwide.
The Impact on U.S. Citizens
1. Financial Impact
Pregnant women who want an abortion, but are denied it due to the illegalization of abortion in the state they live in, are required to get it in another state where it is legal. The money and time it takes to drive or fly to another state, rent a place or stay in a hotel for a couple of days, and the actual abortion fee will all add up and make it more expensive and troublesome to get an abortion. Worse yet, there might be an even greater, long-term financial impact on women who decide to give birth to their baby without financial security.
According to the University of California, San Francisco’s Turnaway Study, women who cannot get an abortion and are forced to give birth to their baby are more likely to experience federal poverty than women who can access abortion. The logical reasoning behind this is that abortion is cheaper than the cost of giving birth, and it will even cost more to raise the baby. Therefore, pregnant women who are not in a good financial position are more likely to suffer because they might not be able to pay all the fees as opposed to pregnant women of means.
2. Widening the Racial Disparities
This decision makes women of colour more likely to suffer, further widening the racial disparities. Statistics show that 67% of abortions occur among women of colour (Black, Hispanic, Asian, and a few others), while the rest, 33% of abortions, are among white women. One main reason abortion rates are higher among women of colour is their limited access to sexual health services compared to white women. Furthermore, there has been a mistrust placed towards the healthcare service providers due to racist practices, which further reduces the likelihood for a woman of colour to seek medical help.
Relating to the first point, women of colour are more likely to have a low income, less likely to have savings to cover the cost of abortions, and are more likely to have no access to their own vehicles. With all of these disadvantages that women of colour have compared to white women, it will be more difficult for them to get an abortion outside their state. Considering the current hurdles that women of colour currently face, the overturning of Roe v Wade will most likely further magnify them.
3. Impact on the Mental Health
Zooming into each individual, denying abortions to pregnant individuals who seek them will only increase their likelihood of experiencing anxiety, depression, and stress, resulting in a lower quality of life for women. It is common enough for pregnant women to experience anxiety, depression, or stress at some point during pregnancy, and overturning Roe v Wade will only add fuel to those fires. High levels of anxiety, depression, and stress are bad for both the mother and the baby. A depressed pregnant woman will be less likely to go for a check-up, which might be dangerous if something is wrong with her baby because she wouldn’t know the baby’s condition and wouldn’t receive advice that a doctor might give after the check-up.
The impact of overturning Roe v Wade doesn’t only revolve around pregnant women, but it also impacts non-pregnant women. Denying access to abortions might also create anxiety and stress for them. They may be worried about the future when they have an unwanted pregnancy and cannot get an abortion. Abortion might be seen as a last “safety net” to prevent a woman from having a baby, and if that “safety net” is removed, it is not surprising that women of reproductive age will feel stressed and anxious.
The battle for abortion rights is not over yet. In the U.S, 54% of all abortions are performed by consuming abortion pills. Abortion pills can be sold in tablet or pill form, which is a safe and effective method to remove early pregnancy by replicating a process similar to a miscarriage. It is still unclear how abortion pills will be affected in this scenario, but it is possible that abortion pills can still be used for abortion. This is precisely what the Supreme Court will decide next in their legal battle: what they should do with abortion pills.
The U.S Food Drug Administration (FDA) approved the abortion pills, and one could argue that FDA’s approval should override the state laws, meaning that while surgical abortion is banned, abortion through the use of the abortion pills might still be legal. If this is the case, it might lessen the burden on many women, as long as they find out about their unwanted pregnancy within 70 days of their last period. However, if the states also decide to ban abortion pills, riskier methods that require breaking the laws might be forced upon pregnant women.
FDA also allows the pill to be delivered through the mail. This means that technically, someone can buy the abortion pills from another state that allows abortion and get it sent to their home. There are currently no laws or regulations on how the states will monitor the delivery of abortion pills, so, a woman could still get her hands on the pills and have an abortion without anyone snitching. However, since the woman did have an abortion in a state where it’s banned, she would be charged with a felony if someone could provide evidence that she had an abortion. For now, just remember that the battle for abortion rights is not over yet, and most U.S citizens are currently fighting to get their rights back.
- Who Was Norma McCorvey, the Woman Behind the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court Decision? | Smart News| Smithsonian Magazine
- The tumultuous history that led to the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling
- TIMELINE: Roe v. Wade Abortion Law From 1973-2022
- ROE V. WADE: ITS HISTORY AND IMPACT
- Abortion is banned in these states: Mapping abortion law changes by state. – The Washington Post
Written By Daniel and Priyanka
Edited by Poorani