Before 1973, if you were pregnant but did not want to carry your fetus to term, you didn’t have many options. If you could afford it, a doctor might clandestinely perform what was called a “D and C,” i.e., abortion, or you could travel to Canada or Puerto Rico for your procedure. Abortion was illegal in most states, and restricted in others. Where allowed, it was only “on medical advice for the purpose of saving the life of the mother.”
In 1970, an unmarried woman in Texas, later identified as Norma McCovey, found herself pregnant, and without any options to terminate her pregnancy. In Texas it was a felony to abort a fetus. As Jane Roe, she sued the district attorney of Dallas County, Texas, Henry B. Wade, claiming the law violated her constitutional guarantee of personal liberty and the right to privacy implicitly guaranteed in the First, Fourth, Fifth, Ninth and 14th Amendments.
The case reached the Supreme Court and was decided in January 1973. By a 7-2 majority, the court ruled that the constitution protected a woman’s absolute right to control her own body for the first trimester of her pregnancy. Only as the fetus developed was the state was granted the right to place restrictions on that privacy right, for the purpose of protecting the health of the pregnant woman.
In the intervening years, as the country took a conservative turn, what those restrictions might be and how much the state could interfere in the woman’s control over her pregnancy became bigger issues, until as most recently, we have seen an unprecedented crush of laws aimed at preventing women from exercising their constitutional rights in this area at all.
The right to reproductive freedom is seen as a cornerstone of the women’s movement and celebrated every year in January. This year, on Jan. 22, pro-choice groups such as the national Organization for Women, Choice USA and NARAL Pro-Choice America will gather at the Supreme Court in the late afternoon to commemorate this landmark Supreme Court case. For the thousands of American women who face an unwanted pregnancy every year, this case and what it stands for is certainly still relevant.