Roe v. Wade: A Primer

For obvious reasons, this week I vowed to start reading Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights by Katha Pollitt, and it hit me: I know virtually nothing about Roe v. Wade, as in I would have been hard pressed to tell you the specifics of who Roe was/is, the details of her case, etc., etc. So, I’ve spent today pouring through archived news articles and briefs about the case, and am happy to report that I know feel like I know *something* about the whole mess. If you’re like me and really only knew the case in name only, I hope this post serves as a small education about the oh-so-tangled history of abortion’s legality.

Here’s a brief run down of the prominent figures involved in Roe v. Wade:

Jane Roe – a single pregnant woman challenging the constitutionality of Texas’ criminal abortion laws. Well, sort of. Jane Roe is actually a pseudonym for Norma McCorvey, a twenty-two year old woman, pregnant with her third child and seeking a safe, legal abortion. For the sake of full disclosure, I will also add that McCorvey is caucasian. McCorvey wasn’t an activist, just a woman seeking an abortion.

Linda Coffee – a lawyer who knew received a tip from her friend, Henry McCluskey, an adoption lawyer who McCorvey had been referred to by her physician. Coffee, long wanting to file suit against the abortion statutes in Texas, was looking for a plaintiff to use in her case, someone who would have not been able to afford to travel to get a legal abortion in another state. Norma McCorvey perfectly fit the bill.

Henry Wade – Dallas county district attorney who upheld the abortion statutes in Texas. Coffee filed suit against him.

John and Mary Doe – a childless couple who filed a companion complaint to Roe. Mary suffered from a “neural-chemical” disorder, and was advised against using birth control for medical reasons. Pregnancy was also highly ill-advised, and Mary’s complaint was that if she were to become pregnant she would want to terminate her pregnancy in a safe and legal way.

On January 22, 1973, the U.S. Supreme court ruled (7-2) that a woman had a legal right to an abortion during the first trimester. After the first trimester states could regulate abortion procedures according to maternal health. For the last ten weeks of pregnancy, it was ruled that states could ban abortion, except in cases where the life of the mother was clearly endangered.

Norma McCorvey, however, has turned out to be a very unfortunate choice for this role of feminist poster-child, or at least as a pro-choice icon. In 2003, after converting to Christianity, she attempted to have Roe v. Wade overturned. McCorvey had been living with her partner, Connie Gonzalez, since the early 70’s, as an openly gay woman, making it all the more confusing to push a conservative Christian agenda. Though, according to a 2013 article in Salon (“The ever-changing ideologies of Jane Roe“), McCorvey announced that she was “not a lesbian. [She was] just a child in Christ now.” McCorvey abandoned Gonzalez after Gonzalez suffered a series of strokes that left her with no functional short-term memory. That seems, um, not very Christ-like.

It is difficult to imagine that this suit won with a 7-2 vote in 1973, while today’s abortion cases are barely hanging on with votes closer to 5-4, not to mention that Roe is, well, no longer Roe. Furthermore, the New York Times reported in a January 22, 1973 article titled “Excerpts From Abortion Case” several points that seem far more progressive than anything we would see printed about abortion in 2015, since the debate seems to have shifted almost entirely to defining a fetus as a person, or rather equating abortion to murder. Here’s a snippet of Justice Harry A. Blackmun’s majority opinion, as printed in the New York Times in 1973:

The appellee and certain amici argue that the fetus is a “person” within the language and meaning of the 14th Amendment. In support of this they outline at length and in detail the well-known facts of fetal development. If this suggestion of parenthood is established, the appellant’s case, of course, collapses, for the fetus’ right to life is then guaranteed specifically by the amendment.

The Constitution does not define “person” in so many words. The use of the word is such that it has application only postnatally.

All this, together with our observation throughout the major portion of the 19th century prevailing legal abortion practices were far free than they are today, persuades us that the word “person,” as used in the 14th Amendment, does not include the unborn.

I would like to point out that the New York times, making this seemingly liberal statement in 1973, said that abortion practices in the 19th century were MORE FREE than they were in 1973. Wait, what? More free? Why, oh why, have we continued to move toward more restrictions?

Stay tuned for more as I make my way through Pro.

Sources I consulted for this post:

Excerpts From Abortion Case. (1973, January 22). The New York Times, p. 20. Retrieved from

The Accidental Activist (Vanity Fair, February 2013)

Roe v. Wade (Cornell University’s Legal Information Institute)

Roe v. Wade (PBS)

Roe v. Wade Fast Facts (CNN)

*Photo credit: Danny Hammontree

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