Roe V Wade

In 1973 the Court announced in Roe v Wade that the Fourteenth Amendment right of ‘liberty’ included ‘freedom of personal choice in matters of marriage and family life’ and that this right ‘necessarily includes the right of a woman to decide whether or not to terminate her pregnancy’. The case centred upon Norma McCorvey — identified in the case only by the alias of ‘Jane Roe’ — who had been denied an abortion by the state law of Texas. (Henry Wade was a Dallas County district attorney.)

It was a 7–2 decision by the Court in which the recently appointed William Rehnquist — later to be appointed chief justice — was one of the two dissenters

1992 In a plurality opinion, the Court upheld the constitutional right to have an abortion that was established in Roe v. Wade (1973), but altered the standard for analyzing restrictions on that right, crafting the undue burden standard for abortion restrictions.

Another landmark decision on abortion rights was handed down in Gonzales v Carhart (2007). In a 5–4 decision, the Court upheld the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003.

This case was seen as the Court chipping away at the right of a woman to have an abortion.

. Most abortions— over 90% — are performed within the first three months of pregnancy. The procedure ends with the doctor vacuuming out the embryonic tissue. This procedure would be unaffected by this decision. However, if the abortion occurs much later in the pregnancy then some form of surgical operation is required. The woman will be placed under anaesthetic, her cervix dilated and the foetus removed in pieces. Some doctors use a different procedure for these ‘late-term’ abortions, to reduce risks to the woman of bleeding, infection and permanent injury. This other procedure involves partly delivering the foetus and then crushing its skull to make removal easier. Opponents say this amounts to infanticide, as the foetus could be viable (able to survive outside the uterus) at the time. It is this procedure that Congress voted to ban in the so-called Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003.

The significance of the decision :

■ It marked a historic reversal of the move towards increasing acceptance of a woman's right to make all decisions concerning her body. It also made no exception for the health of the woman, although it did provide an exception if the life of the woman was threatened.

■ The decision altered the strategy of conservative interest groups, such as Concerned Women for America, the Eagle Forum and the National Right to Life Committee who used to see their goal as getting the Court to overturn Roe v Wade, now they take a much more incremental approach — of ‘chipping away’ .

■ The decision increased to political significance of court appointments-, with the more conservative Samuel Alito having replaced the more centrist Sandra O’Connor. In 2000, in Stenberg v Carhart, the Court had struck down a Nebraska state law prohibiting the same late- term procedure. But in that case, O’Connor had sided with the Court’s four liberal justices — Stevens, Souter, Breyer and Ginsburg — to author a majority opinion which, while recognising the procedure could be ‘gruesome’, nonetheless decided that it was sometimes necessary. For now on appointments to the court would be made in a heightened atmosphere of political and moral debate.