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Understanding Roe v. Wade

In 1973, the United States Supreme Court upheld its previous ruling of a right to privacy under due process as outlined in the 14th Amendment. The 14th Amendment prohibits state and local governments from restricting an individual's right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The United States Supreme Court extended this right to include a woman's right to have an abortion in its landmark decision declared in Roe versus Wade. This landmark court case determined that the right to an abortion must balance with the state's obligation for regulating the practice, including protecting prenatal development and women's health. The Court's ruling on disallowing the restrictions on abortion within the United States created a national uproar that still continues today.

In 1969, Norma McCorvey's marriage started to fall apart when she received news of her pregnancy. At the time of her marital dispute, McCorvey's mother and stepfather took responsibility in raising her five-year-old. Clearly, McCorvey could not handle the stress of a second child. McCorvey lived in the state of Texas, which prohibited abortions except when the mother's life became endangered. Out of desperation, McCorvey started to look for somebody who would perform the abortion illegally. After several failed attempts, McCorvey sought counsel with two attorneys interested in changing the government's position on abortion. These two Chief Plaintiff attorneys included Sarah Weddington and Linda Coffee. McCorvey agreed to testify as the plaintiff “Jane Roe” in the infamous trial that would cause public uproar for multiple generations.

The attorneys knew they faced incredible difficulty, including Texan legislation that targeted individuals who performed abortions. In addition, if McCorvey could give birth safely, then the courts would disregard the case altogether. Linda Coffee composed a three-page letter naming Henry B. Wade, a Dallas County D.A., as the defendant. Coffee further requested the courts to declare the law unconstitutional in the state of Texas and to stop enforcing it. Weddington and Coffee based their premise on the 1965 Griswold versus Connecticut landmark case that invalidated all state laws prohibiting the use of contraceptives among married couples. The Griswold decision was based on the view of the 9th Amendment, which secured an individual's right to privacy. Weddington and Coffee asserted that the right to privacy also involves the right to give birth or have an abortion. In response to this request, the Fifth Circuit federal court judge, John R. Brown, arranged a panel of three judges to hear Roe versus Wade, including Sarah Tigham Hughes, Irving S. Goldberg, and William Taylor. A formal hearing took place in front of the panel on May 22nd, 1970.

McCorvey turned down a request seeking to interview her before the initial hearing. McCorvey expressed that she wished to remain anonymous throughout the hearing to prevent any backlash regarding future employment. McCorvey further explained that she wished to terminate her pregnancy, because of financial hardship and the social stigma attached to bearing illegitimate children. McCorvey also expressed that she faced the risk of endangering herself if she submitted to an abortion that she could not afford. Her financial restrictions limited her ability to travel to another state that lawfully allowed women to have an abortion. Weddington and Coffee amended the case to a class-action lawsuit that consisted of all pregnant women. In addition, Dr. James Hallford also joined the suit as an “intervenor,” because he had faced charges of performing illegal abortions. Roy Merill and Fred Bruner, two public attorneys, prepared to defend him based on the 14th Amendment.

On the defense side of the case, Robert Flowers and Jay Floyd represented the state. The state of Texas based its argument on the fact that the unborn child had legal rights, obliging the state to protect them. The court ordered the plaintiffs to argue for a summary judgment for one-half hour, and the defense to argue for a dismissal for one-half hour. Coffee explained that the case involved a constitutional issue involving the 1st, 9th, and 14thAmendments. Coffee believed that the abortion statute stood no chance of survival after careful consideration by the three-judge panel. Weddington asserted that the state could not define a starting point at which life begins and ends. Weddington further expounded on the right-to-privacy argument based on the 9th and 14th Amendments. In addition, she responded to questions regarding the regulation of abortions by suggesting that qualified physicians perform the procedure. Floyd argued that Jane Roe was near the end of her pregnancy, which negated her ability to sue the state. After accepting denial to the previous claim, he began to dispute Coffee's 1st Amendment argument. After one of the judges agreed, he moved on to dispute the 9th Amendment and vagueness. One of the judges cut him off when he started to dispute the 14th Amendment grounds. Finally, Floyd defended the state's issue with defining life at the formation of the embryo, or after the mother has given birth. In addition, he stated that abortion beyond the agreed upon starting point of life may constitute as murder by the majority; therefore the state has a right to protect a living being. In other words, the right to life remains superior to a woman's right to privacy. The three-judge panel found otherwise in a unanimous decision that declared Texas abortion laws unconstitutional under the 9th Amendment.

The Fifth Circuit Court issued declarative relief, which found the law unconstitutional. However, it also failed to issue injunctive relief, which failed to stop the enforcement of the abortion statute in the state of Texas. As a result, the plaintiffs appealed the case directly to the United States Supreme Court. Several organizations filed briefs in defense of pregnant women, including Planned Parenthood, the American College of Gynecologists and Obstetricians, the New York Academy of Medicine, and more. Weddington argued that a woman's right to childbearing decisions should remain free from government interference. She asked the United States Supreme Court to reject the state's claim that it could protect the fetus based on the premise that the Constitution protects an individual's rights at the time of birth and not contraception. In other words, those persons born receive citizenship, not unborn children.

Floyd rebutted this statement by asserting that a woman has a choice prior to the time she becomes pregnant. Once a woman becomes pregnant, she has no choice other than to give birth to the child. The United States Supreme Court asked why no states prosecuted women who obtained abortions with murder. In addition, he asked why no states charged doctors who performed abortions illegally with premeditated murder. The Court finally concluded with asking when life actually began in the eyes of the state. Floyd simply could not respond to the aforementioned questions.

Only seven sitting justices heard Roe versus Wade at the time of its initial hearing, which prompted a re-scheduling of the case on October 1972. The Supreme Court had finished its decision on the Eisenstadt vs. Baird case, which granted unmarried couples the right to use birth control. The Supreme Court also further defined the 9th Amendment as the right-to-privacy against government intrusion into matters as to whether mothers could choose to bear or abort a child. Nine sitting justices reported to hear the Roe versus Wade case on October 1972. The plaintiffs maintained their stance on an individual's right to privacy based on the 9th Amendment while the state continued its stance on preserving the life of the fetus.

On January 22nd, 1973, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Jane Roe. The Supreme Court based its ruling on the fact that the original legislation banning abortion was to protect women from a 19th century procedure that endangered the mother's health. Justice Harry Blackmun reviewed the history of abortion and compared it to abortion procedures of the time. He concluded that abortion procedures were safer than at the time abortions became illegal. Blackmun turned the discussion towards an individual's right to privacy, and whether the 9th and 14th Amendments granted the women the right to bear or abort a child. Blackmun expressed that the 9th and 14th Amendments protected a woman's right to terminate her pregnancy. Blackmun also explained that the United States Constitution did not include a prenatal fetus as a “person.” He further explained that the state could not adopt one theory of life and override the rights of pregnant women. Blackmun stated that the abortion decision must be left to the pregnant woman's physician during the first trimester of pregnancy. During the second trimester, the state could regulate abortion procedures in ways that seemed suitable to maternal health. During the stage prior to viability, the state could regulate abortion for the preservation of the mother's health.