Study Guide

Right to Privacy - Roe v. Wade

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Roe v. Wade

  • In Roe v. Wade, Supreme Court built on precedent of Griswold and Eisenstadt to rule that laws banning abortion violated individuals' privacy rights
  • In Roe, Supreme Court ruled that a fetus was not a "person" possessing constitutional rights until it reached viability (the advanced stage of pregnancy when it could live outside the womb).
  • Roe allowed governments to regulate or prohibit abortions of fetuses that had reached viability, but banned such regulations on abortions in the first trimester

With the ruling in Eisenstadt, the stage was now set for the Supreme Court decision on abortion. In 1972, "Jane Roe" challenged a Texas law that prohibited abortion in all cases except those performed in order to save the mother's life. Thirty other states had similar laws, and in many of these states the legislature was considering some sort of reform. The timing was therefore right for a reappraisal of the question, and the Court was prepared by a half century of privacy cases. Having defined a certain zone of privacy around marriage and family decisions, it was a comparatively small step to include abortion within this area into which government (both state and federal) could not go. Having decided that people had a fundamental privacy right to decide for themselves whom to marry, whether or not to have children, and how those children should be raised, it was a small step to conclude that the right to privacy was "broad enough to encompass a woman's decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy."

To Ginsburg, more important than the details of this particular ruling, was the signal it sent about the direction of the Court. If Ginsburg is correct, the approach of the Court to abortion, and perhaps privacy rights more broadly, dating to the early twentieth century, may come under reconsideration.

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