A Woman’s Constitutional Right to Choose: Roe v Wade
In truth, I realized that most people do not know and/or understand the legal meaning of Roe v. Wade. Oh yes, we all know that on a macro-level, it affords a woman the Constitutional Right to choose to have an abortion. However, that is a very broad understanding of Roe.
An attorney would define Roe as The landmark 1973 U.S. Supreme Court Case that afforded constitutional protections for women to choose to have an abortion prior to the viability of a fetus.
Why did I decide to write about Roe v Wade? To define legal terms as ‘viability of a fetus,’ explain how the Constitutional Right to Privacy affords a pregnant woman the right to choose, and the timetable the Supreme Court set forth to delineate when a woman can lawfully obtain an abortion, if she chooses, in this country.
Fragility of Roe v Wade
On September 1, 2021, the State of Texas enacted SB 8, The Texas Heartbeat Act, which bans abortion after the sixth week of pregnancy, with no exceptions.
The State of Texas unequivocally limited women’s rights upon the enactment of SB 8, which is in direct contravention of established Constitutional law, Roe v Wade.
To all the non-lawyers out there: The Constitution and Supreme Court Decisions take precedent over conflicting federal and state laws.
Stop the Presses! I thought the United States Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade ruled that a woman has a right to choose to obtain an abortion prior to the viability of a fetus.
I am confident that you all, just like me, do not understand how Texas can blatantly disregard the landmark decision of Roe v. Wade and ban abortion in their state.
However, before we talk in depth about the ‘Constitutionality’ of SB 8 (which will be addressed in another article), we all need to understand Roe v. Wade and how that case legalized abortion in the United States.
Facts of Roe v Wade
Does anyone know the underlying facts of Roe v Wade? I am confident that most Americans do not. Roe was first litigated in 1971… 50 years ago. Jane Roe lived in Texas, was a single, pregnant woman who brought a class action lawsuit to challenge the Texas criminal abortion laws. Texas in 1971 made it a crime to obtain an abortion, with the sole exception that an abortion could save the mother’s life.
Jane Roe wanted to terminate her pregnancy for the following personal reasons:
- ‘She was unmarried and pregnant.
- She wanted to terminate her pregnancy via abortion by a licensed, experienced physician in Texas.
- She was precluded from obtaining a legal abortion in Texas, because her life ‘did not appear to be threatened by the continuation of her pregnancy.’
- She could not afford to travel to another state to obtain a legal abortion.
- She asserted in her lawsuit the Texas abortion statutes were vague and violated her Constitutional Right to Privacy.’
The Right to Abortion is NOT Absolute
Jane Roe argued before the US Supreme Court, “a woman’s right to an abortion is absolute and that she is entitled to terminate her pregnancy at whatever time, in whatever way, and for whatever reason she alone chooses.”
What most Americans do not realize, is that the Supreme Court did not agree with Jane Roe’s argument that a woman’s right to abortion is absolute; and disagreed with the notion that a woman is entitled to terminate her pregnancy at any time.
Justice Blackmun’s Supreme Court Majority Opinion
The Honorable Justice Blackmun wrote the Majority Opinion for Roe. The majority opinion is the legal decision rendered by a majority (more than half) of the Supreme Court Justices and explains the reasoning behind the court’s decision on a legal and factual basis.
In the Majority Opinion, Justice Blackmun was cognizant of the differing opinions towards abortion in 1973 and in my opinion, addressed the issue of abortion with great sensitivity and compassion towards all Americans.
The issue of abortion was a ‘hot button topic’ in 1973 and seems even more divisive in 2021. Justice Blackmun’s Majority Opinion articulated a comprehensive review of the history of abortion from ancient Greece and Roman times to present day in the United States.
I believe, the most important part of Justice Blackmun’s majority opinion, was how the Court determined the 14th Amendment of the Constitution, the ‘Right to Privacy’, afforded a pregnant woman the right to choose to have an abortion. However, the court determined this is not an absolute right to abortion. Here is the BUT: The State can regulate abortion vis-à-vis showing a Compelling Interest to protect the health of the mother and fetus; then there is the AND: the abortion must occur prior to the viability of the fetus.
Easy to understand that Roe gives a woman the ‘right to choose to have an abortion,’ but yet it comes with caveats, that we will discuss.
The Issue Decided by the Supreme Court
For all you non-lawyers: Every legal matter that is litigated in court, always has a question, an issue to be decided by the Court.
The issue before the Court in Roe: Whether the U.S. Constitution protects a pregnant woman’s personal liberty to choose to have an abortion without excessive State regulation.
The Supreme Court Decision
The Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade did not confer upon women an absolute right to choose to have an abortion. The Supreme Court REGULATED a woman’s right to abortion to effectively balance a woman’s privacy rights with that of the State’s interests.
In Roe, the Supreme Court ruled that a woman has the qualified right to terminate her own pregnancy. Please note the italicized words qualified and absolute. These words are critical to understanding the ruling in this case.
The Court determined the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which affords the Right to Privacy against State action, also grants a woman’s qualified right to terminate her pregnancy.
In plain English, the Constitution gave Jane Roe personal liberty protections to fight the Texas ban on abortion; and the Supreme Court granted her a qualified right to get an abortion.
However, in constitutional matters such as the Right to Privacy, the Court will look to balance the State’s interests against that of a Woman’s control over her pregnancy. Yes, balance means reviewing the facts; assessing factors that would determine ‘fairness’ to all parties.
A Woman’s Qualified Right to Get an Abortion
The Court considered whether the following factors would unduly harm a woman who is prohibited by State law from ending her pregnancy:
- ‘Medical Harm to the woman.
- Psychological Harm.
- The social stigma of being an unwed mother.
- The eventual birth of an unwanted child may bring psychological harm on the family.
- The financial, economic stress.’
In this regard, the Court would ask a woman who sought to obtain an abortion, whether the State’s ban on abortion is detrimental and causes irreparable, undue harm to the health and well-being of a woman who is forced to continue an unwanted pregnancy?
The State’s Compelling State Interests to Regulate Abortion
Did you wonder why a State aggressively opposes abortion? In Roe, the State of Texas alleged they have an interest to protect the health of the mother and the fetus.
The Court in Roe determined that a woman has certain fundamental constitutionally protect rights, and when she seeks to obtain an abortion, the State may limit these rights by asserting a compelling state interest.
Remember: The Supreme Court REGULATED a woman’s right to abortion to effectively balance a woman’s privacy rights with that of the State’s interests.
Compelling State Interest Factors
According to Roe, at some point during the term of a pregnancy, the State interests become dominant for the following reasons:
- To protect the Health of both the woman and the fetus.
- To uphold Medical Standards.
- To Safeguard Prenatal Life.
In addition, the State argued in Roe that the woman’s Right to Privacy is NOT ABSOLUTE throughout the entire pregnancy.
The Supreme Court: The Qualified Right to Terminate a Pregnancy
What does a qualified right to terminate a pregnancy mean? Exactly what it says. No American citizen can just ‘go and get an abortion.’ The Supreme in this case, set up ‘guard rails’ to define:
- The Viability of a Fetus. and
- Provide a Timeline for the Regulation of Abortion via ‘Trimesters.’
The Viability of a Fetus
The viability of a fetus is a long debated topic. The court concluded, based on historical, religious, and medical facts, that viability occurs when the fetus can survive outside of the mother’s womb at 24 weeks of gestation.
The Court: The Rights of a Pregnant Woman Must Be Balanced with State Rights
As previously discussed, the Court sought to balance the Fourteenth Amendment’s Right to Privacy and State Interests. This was accomplished by the Court identifying three trimesters of pregnancy; each comprised of twelve weeks.
- First Trimester: ‘Approximately’ prior to the end of the first trimester, A state cannot regulate abortion. Exception: A state can require the medical procedure be performed by a licensed physician in a medical clinic, office, hospital.
- Second Trimester: A state may regulate abortion to promote its interest in the maternal health.
- Third Trimester: A state may ban abortion. ‘Considered to be the stage before fetal viability, the State has a compelling interest in protecting the potential human life; however, may proscribe abortion for the preservation of the life or health of the mother.’
The Majority Opinion of Roe v. Wade
As I previously mentioned, Justice Blackmun, who wrote the Majority Opinion, cited the common law. The common law is based on the history of social customs, traditions, and judicial review, and not on statutory law.
To quote Justice Blackmun:
“It is thus apparent that the common law, at the time of the adoption of our Constitution, and throughout the major portion of the 19th century, abortion was viewed with less disfavor than under most American statutes currently in effect. Phrasing it another way, a woman enjoyed a substantially broader right to terminate a pregnancy than she does in most States today. At least with respect to the early stage of pregnancy, and very possibly without such a limitation, the opportunity to make this choice was present in this county well into the 19th century. Even later, the law continued for some time to treat less punitively an abortion procured in early pregnancy.”
The above quote is in my opinion, profound. Why did American women have a ‘broader right to abortion’ in the 19th century, than today? It is even more incredulous to comprehend, how in 2021, some States are relentless in their efforts to ban abortion.
Consequence of Overturning Roe v Wade
The effect of overturning the decision in Roe, means that Texas SB 8 would ‘stand’. The Abortion prohibition in Texas would create a domino effect for every State that wants to ban Abortion.
True. Overturning Roe would greenlight a State’s prerogative to enact legislation that would Ban abortion.
Once again, I ask you all to consider the undue hardship and detrimental effect this would have on all women who reside in neighboring states that prohibit abortion. Women would have to travel hundreds of miles (perhaps thousands of miles) to obtain a legal abortion. Women would have to leave their families to travel via plane, bus, car, or train; women would be required to take days off from work and find childcare for other children in the family in their effort to obtain an out-of-state abortion. The financial costs incurred would be an insurmountable obstacle for many women.
Oh, and by the way… a woman’s choice to have an abortion is not a decision that is made with the ‘flick of a switch.’ There is an emotional component that cannot be quantified. A decision to have an abortion is an individualized process, a thought process subjective to each pregnant woman. Obstacles literally thrown in the way of this process not only unduly harm a woman but can result in permanent emotional and physical harm to a woman for the rest of her life.
Keep in mind that Texas is not the only State in the good ‘ole U.S of A. that wants to deny women their Constitutional Right to choose to have an abortion. Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, Mississippi and Ohio all want to enact similar heartbeat legislation.
It is clear these States march in solidarity with Texas to disregard established Constitutional protections of the Fourteenth Amendment Right of Privacy granted to all women.
Now. I ask you all to think for just one moment…Roe was first litigated in a Texas courtroom in 1971. It was ultimately argued before the US Supreme Court in 1973. Today is 2021.
Why do we continue to move backward as a nation, and not forward? Why do some folks want to impose more restrictions on choices that affect our own bodies? Keep in mind, that a pregnant woman who chooses to get an abortion does not impact society as a whole. The impact is on her body, her life and her family. Her choice does not affect my life or your life.
Stay tuned… the next article will address the Constitutionality of Texas SB 8.