Tuesday, Jan. 22, is the 40th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade. The 7-2 ruling determined that the right to privacy under the 14th Amendment’s due process clause extended to a woman’s decision to have an abortion.
Until the 19th century, the federal and state governments did not make any effort to restrict abortion. Connecticut passed the first law limiting the practice in 1821, prohibiting the use of a toxic substance to cause a miscarriage after “quickening,” usually four or five months into pregnancy when a woman begins to feel her child move. Other states followed, and by 1900 they all had anti-abortion restrictions in place.
The number of abortions increased significantly during the Great Depression. “The Depression years make vivid the relationship between economics and reproduction,” writes Leslie Reagan, professor of history and law at the University of Illinois and author of “When Abortion was a Crime.” “Married women with children found it impossible to bear the expense of another, and unmarried women could not afford to marry.”
In 1969, a Texas woman named Norma McCorvey found she was pregnant with her third child. She sought a legal abortion by falsely claiming that she had been raped, but could not provide a police report. She unsuccessfully tried to obtain an illegal abortion before coming into contact with lawyers Linda Coffee and Sarah Weddington.
In 1970, they filed suit on behalf of McCorvey, under the alias Jane Roe, against Dallas County District Attorney Henry Wade. The district court ruled in McCorvey’s favor, but she gave birth before the case was decided. The appeal of the decision made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which heard arguments in 1971 and 1972 before finally making its ruling in 1973.
By that time, several states had already passed laws reforming or repealing their restrictions on abortion. According to the Roe v. Wade decision, the government can continue to regulate abortion procedures in the interest of a woman’s health or to protect a potential human life that was “viable” – “potentially able to live outside the mother’s womb, albeit with artificial aid.”
McCorvey later became a pro-life advocate, speaking out against abortion.
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