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What is Roe v. Wade?

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March 3, 2022

“Roe v. Wade” or “Roe”  are terms often heard in the abortion debate. Sometimes this language has been used even as a synonym for abortion itself, but despite its immediate name recognition, many do not actually know what was decided in Roe v. Wade and how that has affected the right to life in our country. So, what is Roe v. Wade?

Roe’s history in the U.S.

Prior to the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, abortion was illegal in most states with a few restrictively allowing the procedure in certain circumstances. In 1971, the Supreme Court decided its first case dealing with abortion in United States v. Vuitch. In this case, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of a law that permitted abortion to save the woman’s life or health. This ruling led to an expanded definition of women’s health that included both physical and psychological well-being. 

Following this ruling, 17 other challenges to abortion laws made their way to the Supreme Court, including the landmark Roe v. Wade case. Roe challenged a Texas law that prohibited all abortions except for those deemed “lifesaving.” The Supreme Court ultimately invalidated this law, declaring that the right to privacy enveloped a woman’s decision to continue or terminate her pregnancy and that the state could not interfere with the woman’s decision unless it had a compelling enough interest to override this right to privacy. The court drew that line of compelling interest through the viability standard. 

The viability standard

In Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court admitted that the state has a legitimate interest in protecting unborn human life but concluded that that interest did not become compelling until viability, because at that point the unborn child “has the capability of meaningful life outside the mother’s womb.”

However, the choice of viability as the point before which a state may not forbid abortion is entirely arbitrary. Even the author of Roe and two authors of Planned Parenthood v. Casey’s three-justice plurality have admitted this. When the “viability standard” was initially created in 1973, viability was around 28 weeks, but it is now around 21 weeks. The viability line will keep moving as our modern medicine continues to improve. No Supreme Court decision has ever provided a principled justification for the viability standard. 

What’s happened since Roe?

The disastrous Roe v. Wade decision established a national, legal right to abortion, regardless of each state’s laws or desires. This moment marked the birth of the modern pro-life movement that has worked tirelessly for 49 years to protect the lives of the unborn and to educate the public on both the scientific and legal reasons that Roe and the viability standard were wrongly decided. 

States throughout the country have brought a multitude of legal challenges and have created a patchwork across the country of various restrictions and protections for abortion. For the first time in nearly 50 years, the Supreme Court is currently deciding a case that directly challenges Roe and its follow-up case, Planned Parenthood v. Casey, in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. Oral arguments were held on this case in December 2021 and a decision is anticipated in June 2022. The pro-life community is hopeful that after nearly 50 years as a stain on our national conscience, Roe v. Wade will be overturned and the question of abortion will be returned to the states. 

Hannah Daniel

Hannah Daniel serves as a Policy Associate in the ERLC's Washington, D.C. office. She graduated with a degree in Economics from Union University in 2020. She lives in Washington, D.C., and is a member of King’s Church. Read More by this Author