A History of Our Time: Readings on Postwar America

By William H. Chafe; Harvard Sitkoff et al. | Go to book overview

Roe v. Wade (1973)

Justice Harry A. Blackmun

Few Supreme Court decisions have provoked more emotional response or societal polarization than that which ensued after the judges handed down their 7–2 ruling in Roe v. Wade (1973). The decision held that women had an absolute right to choose an abortion through the first trimester (months one through three) of their pregnancies. Pointing out that state laws prohibiting abortions were a relatively late creation (in the second half of the nineteenth century), the majority opinion, written by Nixon appointee Justice Harry Blackmun, concluded that there was no evidence that the founders of the country meant to include unborn fetuses in their constitutional definition of “personhood.” Whether or not human life began at conception or at some undefined later point, the majority reasoned, was a religious question, not a legal certitude. In that circumstance, the judges decided, a woman’s right to privacy in controlling her own reproductive life took priority, at least until the health and viability of the fetus gave the state a legitimate right to intervene. The dissenting judges, on the other hand, argued that such reasoning valued “the convenience, whim or caprice of the putative mother more than the life or potential life of the fetus.”

In the years since 1973, disputes over this decision have animated profound—and intense—political debate. The Roman Catholic Church hierarchy has adamantly opposed the pro-choice position (although many Roman Catholic parishioners disagree with the church); antifeminists and the “new right” have used a “pro-life” position to rally support for their political agenda. The Supreme Court itself has modified its position several times, permitting a series of state regulations to limit the right to abortion; yet at the beginning of the new millennium, the core of the Roe v. Wade decision remained intact. The brief decision that follows concisely summarizes the issues, even as it raises far more questions than it answers.

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