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For most of American history, abortion laws were determined by the American people through their elected representatives. That changed on Jan. 22, 1973, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton that the U.S. Constitution—despite its complete silence on the subject—prevents Americans from providing legal protection for human beings in utero.


Here are some of the most noteworthy Court decisions regarding abortion.

1972 U.S. Supreme Court members

1973 U.S. Supreme Court

Roe v. Wade (1973)


In considering a challenge to a Texas abortion ban, the Supreme Court decided in Roe v. Wade to strike down the laws against abortion in every state. The Court claimed that the “right of privacy” previously discovered in the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment is “broad enough to encompass” a right to abortion. The Court reached this conclusion even though abortion is never mentioned in the Constitution—and even though, during the very same period in which states ratified the 14th Amendment (1868), states also enacted a wave of laws to protect unborn children from abortion.


The Roe Court ruled that abortion must be permitted without limits in the first trimester of pregnancy, that only regulations related to maternal health are permitted during the second trimester, and that, after the point of fetal viability, states may (if they choose) limit or even prohibit abortion, but only if there are exceptions to safeguard the life and “health” of the mother. “Health” was then defined very broadly in Doe v. Bolton.


Doe v. Bolton (1973)


A companion decision to Roe v. Wade handed down on the same day, Doe v. Bolton struck down a Georgia abortion law and is remembered mainly because it defined the extent of the “health” exception used in Roe. The Doe decision defined “health” to include even emotional and psychological considerations—so that virtually any reason would justify an abortion on “health” grounds. The result was that, because Roe required a “health” exception for any limits on post-viability abortions, even these third-trimester abortions could not be effectively prohibited.


Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992)


The landmark Planned Parenthood v. Casey decision, which upheld several of Pennsylvania’s abortion limits, reaffirmed the “central holding” of Roe v. Wade while making certain modifications. Discarding Roe’s trimester framework, Casey ruled that pre-viability regulations are permissible as long as they don't impose an “undue burden” on the woman's right to an abortion. This standard allowed for modest pro-life legislation that the Court had previously struck down as unconstitutional.


Gonzales v. Carhart (2007)


In 2003 Congress enacted a federal ban on partial-birth abortion, a gruesome procedure in which an unborn child is partially removed from the womb before being killed. The ban was challenged in court, and in 2007 the Supreme Court ruled in Gonzales v. Carhart that the federal law was constitutionally permissible and not an “undue burden.” It marked the first time since Roe v. Wade that a specific abortion procedure had been banned in the United States. The ruling seemed to open the door to additional limits on abortion.


Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt (2016)

Texas abortion practitioner Whole Woman’s Health (which is also active in Minnesota) challenged two Texas provisions intended to safeguard women’s health. One required abortion facilities to meet the same health and safety standards as other outpatient surgical centers; the other required doctors at abortion centers to have hospital admitting privileges. The Court, in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, struck down both provisions on the grounds that they imposed an “undue burden” on the right to abortion. The Court's interpretation of “undue burden” seemed to be more stringent than in Planned Parenthood v. Casey and Gonzales v. Carhart.

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