Roe v Wade: what to know about the landmark abortion ruling that’s under threat

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  • The world is in shock this month after leaked documents revealed that the Supreme Court is poised to overturn Roe v Wade, a landmark ruling from 1973 that gives women the right to abortion care.

    The leaked document – a draft majority “opinion”, reportedly written by Justice Samuel Alito, suggests that the majority of US Supreme Court justices are in support of overturning the law in a vote this June.

    The news prompted a wave of protests around the world and powerful statements from high profile figures, from Barack and Michelle Obama to VP Kamala Harris and most recently Margaret Atwood.

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    With the Supreme Court vote fast-approaching, people are taking action now to protect women’s reproductive rights. Because if there’s one thing that we’ve learnt, it’s that we cannot be complacent.

    Most of us know the name “Roe v Wade” and that it relates to abortion access, but it is crucial for us all to better understand the landmark ruling and what is truly at risk.

    What is Roe v Wade? Who are Roe and Wade? What has the landmark law changed? And what will genuinely happen if it is overturned?

    Here’s what you need to know…

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    What is Roe v Wade?

    Roe v Wade is a landmark 1973 ruling by the US Supreme Court, concluding that the Constitution should protect a pregnant woman’s right and freedom to choose to have an abortion without excessive government intervention.

    Roe v Wade case

    The decision was prompted by the case of “Jane Roe”, the legal pseudonym for 25-year-old Norma McCorvey, a Texan woman who was pregnant with her third child and wanted an abortion, claiming that it was the result of a rape.

    Abortion was illegal in 1969 and the state of Texas forbade it as unconstitutional, only permitting it in cases where it was necessary to save the mother’s life. McCorvey challenged Texas’ abortion laws, arguing that they were unconstitutional, and filed a lawsuit against her local district attorney, Henry Wade. The case was rejected and McCorvey was forced to give birth. The baby girl was given up for adoption.

    In 1973, an appeal was made to the US Supreme Court, where McCorvey’s case was heard, alongside the case of Sandra Bensing, an anonymous plaintiff challenging Georgia’s abortion law, going by the legal pseudonym, “Jane Doe”.

    The Supreme Court ruled in favour of both women, concluding that abortion laws in both Texas and Georgia were unconstitutional, infringing on a women’s right to privacy.

    In a vote of seven to two on Roe v Wade, the court justices used the case to strike down US federal and state abortion laws and protect a women’s right to choose.

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    Who were Roe and Wade?

    Jane Roe was the pseudonym for 25-year-old Norma McCorvey – the anonymous plaintiff who was challenging the criminal abortion laws in Texas. Defending Texas’ anti-abortion law was lawyer Henry Wade, district attorney for Dallas County.

    Are Roe and Wade still alive?

    Neither Norma McCorvey (Roe) or Henry Wade (Wade) are still alive. McCorvey died in February 2017, aged 69. Wade died in March 2001, aged 86.

    Who won Roe v Wade?

    “Roe” won the case, with the Supreme Court Justices voting 7-2 in favour of Norma McCorvey in 1973. Despite winning the case, it is important to note that McCorvey did end up giving birth to the baby that she was petitioning to abort due to case proceedings taking so long.

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    What did the case change?

    Roe v Wade is responsible for the creation of the “trimester” system. The invention of such a system allowed the state regulation of abortion to differ depending on the stage of pregnancy. According to the ruling, the government cannot prohibit abortion during the first trimester of pregnancy (first three months) and American women have an absolute right to it. In the second trimester of pregnancy, the ruling allows for some government regulation, relating to health. And in the third trimester, the ruling allows states to restrict or ban abortion, except only in cases where it is necessary to save the mother’s life.

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    Roe v Wade Supreme Court

    A recent report by Politico revealed that the Supreme Court was poised to overturn the landmark 1973 law in a vote this summer over Mississippi’s abortion laws. The case sees the state petitioning to ban abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy – a direct challenge to Roe v Wade. If passed, it is expected to strike down the landmark law.

    The leaked document – a draft majority “opinion”, reportedly written by Justice Samuel Alito, suggests that the majority of US Supreme Court justices are in support of overturning the law, and allegedly says that “Roe was egregiously wrong from the start”.

    What will happen if Roe v Wade is overturned?

    If Roe v Wade is overturned, it would be up to each state to determine the legality of abortion. It is expected that twenty-six states will ban or restrict abortion if this happens.

    We will continue to update this story.

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