The Supreme Court case of Roe v. Wade (1973) was one of the most significant and influential pieces of legislation in American history, ensuring women’s reproductive rights for decades to come. This controversial decision legalized abortion in the United States and set the precedent that women rightly should have control over their own reproductive rights. This ruling also set a precedent whereby the federal government would supersede and overturn any state rulings, such as those in place in Texas, that ran in opposition. Roe v. Wade would spark heated debate in years to come and still to this day, splitting the country into pro-life versus pro-choice factions and becoming a platform for special interest groups to have their voice be heard.
In 1970, the plaintiff, Norma McCorvey (given the fictional name “Jane Roe” to protect her identity) initiated judicial action against the district attorney of Dallas county, Henry Wade (“Roe v. Wade”). Roe was an unmarried woman who became pregnant and sought an abortion, which was deemed unconstitutional at the time because of an 1856 law that was still on the books in Texas that prohibited abortion except in cases of physical danger to the mother (Stewart). The case was sent to the Supreme Court after both parties appealed, with Roe’s lawyers arguing that the 1856 law violated Roe’s constitutional rights to privacy.
The key here was that Roe’s lawyers smartly cited an earlier ruling in Connecticut, Griswold v. Connecticut (1965), that had overturned an earlier ruling regarding the use of birth control. Griswold v. Connecticut set the precedent that control of reproductive rights of women violated rights to privacy; therefore, in Roe v. Wade, Roe’s lawyers followed up on this precedent and argued that enforcing anti-abortion rules on women also violated rights to privacy. On January 22, 1973, the Supreme Court, led by Justice Harry A. Blackmun ruled by a seven-to-two majority, citing the Ninth and Fourteenth Amendments, that Texas laws limiting women’s access to abortion rights (except in cases of physical danger) were unconstitutional (“Roe v. Wade”).
Controversy over the Roe v. Wade decision has continued through to today, with factions of pro-lifers constantly seeking repeal of the decision and pro-choice factions seeking to uphold it. Traditionally, Roe v. Wade has faced sterner opposition from Republican majorities, with Democrats typically in favor of the ruling. There have been many consequences for the Roe v. Wade ruling, both for states such as Texas and for the relationship between states and the federal government. The ruling set a precedent that the federal government could overrule separate states’ rulings on controversial issues like abortion, gun control, and assisted suicide, to name a few. The state of Texas, in particular, which typically carries a Republican political stance (Democrats have not won the state in any presidential election in the past two decades), was greatly affected by the decision because it lost the right to enforce its own controls on abortion and birth control to the overarching federal government.
In addition, Roe v. Wade has become larger than a simple court ruling. It has become a political platform over which oppositional forces and special interest groups could take a stand and raise their voices. For example, scholars Linda Greenhouse and Reva Siegel argue that Roe v. Wade has transcended the judicial realm, moving into political and social spheres, where religious, medical, and cultural interests collide. In this quote from Greenhouse and Siegel’s article on Roe v. Wade, the scholars point out how the public consensus over the Supreme Court decision has shifted from women’s reproductive rights to other political concerns: “from the perspective of nearly four decades after the decision, we see that judicial review, far from forcing an end to politics, offers a canvas on which nonjudicial actors continue to paint, reconfiguring legal meaning to their own uses, until Roe v. Wade the case is all but effaced and ‘Roe’ the symbol is what remains” (2086-87).
The point that Greenhouse and Siegel make here is valid. The “nonjudicial actors” mentioned above might be any such groups that stand for anything tangentially related to the Supreme Court decision, i.e., special interest groups, Christian pro-life authorities, Planned Parenthood supporters, women’s rights advocates, Republican versus Democratic interests, etc. Roe v. Wade has even become a political platform on which certain candidates base their agendas and campaigns. Clearly, the focus has shifted from the original intent, which was to ensure that women have reproductive rights over their own bodies.
Overall, Roe v. Wade has been to this date one of the most significant and far-reaching Supreme Court decisions ever. Ironically, Roe (McCorvey) herself later became a pro-lifer, converting to Christianity in 1995 (Stewart). She unsuccessfully petitioned the Supreme Court in 2005 to repeal Roe v. Wade on the grounds that abortion caused physical harm to women (Stewart). This fact alone proves how divisive the Roe v. Wade decision has been throughout the United States’ judicial, social, and political history. Unfortunately, rather than remaining focused on women’s reproductive rights, this court ruling has served the special interests of religious, political, and medical groups, who have sought to use the controversial decision as a platform to have their own needs and beliefs be heard. Nevertheless, Roe v. Wade remains a defining moment in American judicial history, a ruling that made the statement that neither the states nor the federal government could not enforce morality when it comes to women’s reproductive rights. It remains to be seen if Roe v. Wade will remain on the judicial books for decades to come, but at least its repeal does not seem likely for the near foreseeable future.