In 1969, a young woman from Texas named of Norma McCorvey decided to have an abortion to terminate her unwanted pregnancy, but failed to do so as a result of the state’s abortion ban. McCorvey proceeded to sue Henry Wade, the district attorney of Dallas County, claiming that it was a woman’s fundamental right to have an abortion under the U.S. Constitution.
Today, we know her as “Jane Roe” — the woman who legally challenged anti-abortion laws for the first time in American history and succeeded.
Roe v. Wade was a landmark case in which the Supreme Court ruled Texas’ ban on abortion was unconstitutional. In a 7–2 ruling, the court decided that a woman’s right to privacy under the 14th Amendment superseded a state’s right to ban abortion. It was without a doubt controversial, yet a historic day for the rising women’s movement of the 1960s.
On Friday, June 24, in the case of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade after nearly 50 years. This decision will revoke the right to an abortion and leave it to the states to enforce abortion laws on their own.
“More than the result, the tone of the opinion was surprising,” Said Dr. Wendy L. Watson, JD, Ph.D., a political science lecturer at the University of North Texas. “For a sizeable chunk of the electorate, a candidate’s position on abortion has been the single most salient factor in vote choice, and it has been a litmus test for judicial confirmations.”
While this monumental decision was seen as a step back for abortion rights supporters and a win for the pro-life movement, the fact remains Roe v. Wade has been constantly challenged and restricted since the day of its ruling.
1974: A trimester rule of thumb
In 1974, the verdict for Roe v. Wade was delivered favoring Roe. A trimester framework was set along with the final decision. These trimester timetables served as the standard governing rules for states regarding abortion.
During the first trimester, the decision to terminate the pregnancy was solely at the discretion of the woman, and after the first trimester, the states could “regulate, but not outlaw” abortion if they deemed it necessary for the woman’s overall well-being.
Although it granted women the right to choose within the first trimester, it also granted the states the freedom to intervene and create as many restrictions as they deemed necessary.
1976: Abortion costs left to the people
Two years after Roe v. Wade, in 1976, Congress passed the Hyde Amendment, a restrictive measure that prohibited government funds to be spent on abortions. This action weakened Roe v. Wade by setting an economic roadblock for low-income women seeking an abortion.
This economic measure was one of the first amendments made to challenge abortion rights after Roe v. Wade, but certainly not the last. Anti-abortionists believed cutting funds for abortion procedures would provide a definitive solution to the problem.
While Hyde did reduce abortion rates in some states, it also encouraged illegal abortion procedures, especially for low-income women who lack the resources and education regarding their reproductive rights and healthcare options.
1986: State restriction attempts
In the following years, states like Missouri and Pennsylvania formed their own measures to limit access to abortions. In 1986, Missouri created a number of restrictions and provisions against abortion.
Pennsylvania lawmakers amended the Abortion Control Act by adding five provisions, which are “informed consent before performing abortions, a 24-hour period of waiting after seeking an abortion, consent of one parent in case of a minor, and notifying their husband if they were married.” The latter was later deemed unconstitutional in Casey v. Planned Parenthood in 1992, but the rest stood.
1989–2003: Limiting health providers
In 1989, the Supreme Court ruled the state of Missouri could prosecute public health workers and ban clinics that assisted or performed abortions unless it was necessary to save a woman’s life.
Later in 2003, Congress issued a law to prohibit doctors from performing late-term abortions under the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act, but it was shortly challenged by several states. At this point in time, anti-abortion lawmakers saw it more effective to limit the medical source directly, rather than limiting the person seeking the procedure. This action ultimately led to many more restrictions for women’s clinics, organizations, and health providers who performed abortions.
2021: The Heartbeat Act
In 2021, Texas enacted “The Heartbeat Act”. This was the first time a state had successfully enacted an abortion ban since Roe v. Wade. The bill, signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbot, states that abortion will be banned “whenever an ultrasound can detect what lawmakers defined as a fetal ‘heartbeat,’ it can be as early as six weeks into pregnancy”, which many medical experts claim as misleading due to the changing development of a fetus at six weeks of pregnancy.
Some abortion supporters said this bill introduced a new set of challenges for abortion seekers because most pregnancies are unknown within those initial weeks. By the time a woman finds out they are pregnant, not only is it too late under Texas law, but the economic restrictions are too high to act on such short notice.
Regardless of timing, for Jennifer Shelton, the executive director at a Texas women’s clinic called Real Options, the most important part of unplanned pregnancy is safety and knowing the options and available resources. She argues that the bill allows enough time for a woman to make an informed decision about their pregnancy.
“Now with at-home-pregnancy tests being so sensitive, a woman can find out fairly quickly if they’re pregnant,” said Shelton. “You can find out in four weeks, so you can still have two weeks to make a decision.”
Even though Shelton considers herself pro-life, her interest relies on providing women with enough information, so they stay safe and make an informed decision, regardless of the decision.
“We are not going to send our clients to an abortion center, but we do give them questions to ask whatever doctor they choose [to perform an abortion],” she continued. “When they walk in here, every single option, regardless of what they choose, we are going to be there for them.”
2021: Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Center
Last year Dobbs v. Jackson, challenged the validity of Roe v. Wade one last time. Jackson Women’s Health Center argued that the law in which “Mississippi law prohibited abortions after 15 weeks of gestations” was unconstitutional. This case brought into question if the “right to have an abortion” really did fall under the Constitution. On June 24, the Supreme Court decided that it did not. Abortion would now be handled at the state level.
Matthew Eshbaugh-Soha, a professor of political science at the University of North Texas, says the decision represents how much Americans value the right to privacy and the right to choose.
“This ruling raises concerns about the Court’s commitment to the right to privacy,” said Eshbaugh-Soha. “If the Court is willing to give the government the authority to restrict one medical procedure, why should we trust the Court not to extend authority to the government to restrict other medical procedures or, for that matter, to force citizens to receive one medical procedure over another?”
The overturn was a long time coming
After many attempts to restrict abortion throughout the years, the verdict in Dobbs v. Jackson does not come as a surprise for those who know their history. Some say Dobbs will be the new precedent for other controversial cases.
“We may see rights such as the right to same-sex marriage, sexual liberty, and contraception fall away, too,” said Dr. Watson. “I do think that if we see another swing of the pendulum down the road, a future right to abortion will be based on a right to bodily autonomy rather than a right to privacy.”
The pro-life movement argues this is not about women’s rights, but something else entirely.
“What the other side is missing is that they see this as a rights issue, and it’s more of a holistic health issue,” said Shelton.
Will anything actually change?
Legal battles against abortion have been piling up since 1969. The overturn of Roe v. Wade comes from a 48-year history of legal and economic restrictions and state roadblocks created to prevent abortion at all costs. It will be interesting to see what measures states will adopt under this new legal precedent.
“The next steps may be how states begin to interact with each other over this issue, whether there may be a willingness of some states to provide more support to citizens of other states that do not allow abortion to help those individuals access services in their states, or whether conservative states will legislate additional penalties for women who will invariably try to access abortion in other ways,” said Eshbaugh-Soha.
Haidee Chu, Kristin Gourlay, Alyson Hurt, and Carmel Wroth/NPR
However, some states have already begun taking action. Alabama, Mississippi, Oklahoma, West Virginia, Texas, and Wisconsin have already banned abortion. Conversely, more liberal states like California, Hawaii, and Colorado have reaffirmed their support for abortion. The future of reproductive rights will ultimately depend on private organizations’ measures and resources, according to Dr. Watson.
“We may soon see businesses making economic choices based on the availability of reproductive health services and individuals making decisions about where to live, go to school, and work based on similar factors,” said Dr. Watson.
A particular shared opinion on both sides is that banning abortion can only provide a temporary solution to the problem, but fails to scratch the underlying issue, which is the aftermath of unplanned pregnancy.
“Will conservative states increase resources to provide support for these women and others in their lives who are affected by this? What happens to the education of these children when resources to educate even the most motivated students are limited? What will happen to these other societal indicators if these children are not supported?” said Eshbaugh-Soha.
Similarly, Shelton as an anti-abortion supporter shares the same views. She said that fixing broken organizations such as the foster care system, providing education and resources, as well as economic support to women, might be the one thing that eliminates abortion for good.
“I’m grateful for legislation, but I don’t think it’s the answer. I think the answer is making abortion unthinkable, because we are going to take care of women so well, that abortion is not needed anymore,” said Shelton.
Edited by James Sutton