Supreme Court affirms limited right to abortion in Roe v. Wade case, superseding Washington state law, on January 22, 1973.

  • By Walt Crowley
  • Posted 1/22/2003
  • Essay 4135
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On January 22, 1973, the United States Supreme Court rules in favor of "Jane Roe" in her challenge to a state law banning abortion in Texas. The federal ruling supersedes the more restrictive standards of Washington's Referendum 20, approved by state voters on November 3, 1970, which legalized abortion in Washington. The essential provisions of the Roe v. Wade decision will later be adopted as state law in Washington with passage of Initiative 120 on November 5, 1991.

The Supreme Court's 7-2 decision established a woman's right to terminate a pregnancy as an expression of her fundamental "right of privacy," but balanced it against the developing fetus's progress toward independent viability and the state's interest in public health. This principle permitted increasing restriction of abortion as the fetus evolved through the trimesters of pregnancy toward birth. Writing for the majority, Justice Harry A. Blackmun (1909-1999) explained:

"This right of privacy, whether it be founded in the Fourteenth Amendment's concept of personal liberty and restrictions upon state action, as we feel it is, or, as the District Court determined, in the Ninth Amendment's reservation of rights to the people, is broad enough to encompass a woman's decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy. The detriment that the State would impose upon the pregnant woman by denying this choice altogether is apparent. Specific and direct harm medically diagnosable even in early pregnancy may be involved. Maternity, or additional offspring, may force upon the woman a distressful life and future. Psychological harm may be imminent. Mental and physical health may be taxed by child care. There is also the distress, for all concerned, associated with the unwanted child, and there is the problem of bringing a child into a family already unable, psychologically and otherwise, to care for it. In other cases, as in this one, the additional difficulties and continuing stigma of unwed motherhood may be involved. All these are factors the woman and her responsible physician necessarily will consider in consultation.

Not an "Absolute Right"

"On the basis of elements such as these, appellant and some amici argue that the woman's right is absolute and that she is entitled to terminate her pregnancy at whatever time, in whatever way, and for whatever reason she alone chooses. With this we do not agree. Appellant's arguments that Texas either has no valid interest at all in regulating the abortion decision, or no interest strong enough to support any limitation upon the woman's sole determination, are unpersuasive. The Court's decisions recognizing a right of privacy also acknowledge that some state regulation in areas protected by that right is appropriate. As noted above, a State may properly assert important interests in safeguarding health, in maintaining medical standards, and in protecting potential life. At some point in pregnancy, these respective interests become sufficiently compelling to sustain regulation of the factors that govern the abortion decision. The privacy right involved, therefore, cannot be said to be absolute. In fact, it is not clear to us that the claim asserted by some amici that one has an unlimited right to do with one's body as one pleases bears a close relationship to the right of privacy previously articulated in the Court's decisions. The Court has refused to recognize an unlimited right of this kind in the past. Jacobson v. Massachusetts, 197 U.S. 11 (1905) (vaccination); Buck v. Bell, 274 U.S. 200 (1927) (sterilization).

"We, therefore, conclude that the right of personal privacy includes the abortion decision, but that this right is not unqualified and must be considered against important state interests in regulation."

Not the Last Word

This was hardly the last word on the issue. The Roe v. Wade decision was condemned by the Catholic Church and many other religious and conservative political groups. It sparked the development of an aggressive "pro-life" movement that seeks to protect the fetus's life from the moment of conception. Many of its adherents regard abortion as tantamount to murder under all but the most dire circumstances.

Washington voters formally adopted the principles of Roe v. Wade as state law by narrowly passing Initiative 120 on November 5, 1991. The initiative also mandated that lower-income women eligible for state maternity aid also qualified for comparable assistance if they chose an abortion within the law's restrictions.


Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113, 93 S.Ct. 705, 35 L.Ed.2d 147(1973).

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