Roe v. Wade Protects Women's Right to Control Their Bodies

Roe v. Wade, decided in 1973, is one of the most controversial Supreme Court cases in American history. Detractors have several arguments against the decision, ranging from concern over constitutional interpretation (i.e. Did the Supreme Court invent a right?) to anger regarding the procedures themselves (in which abortion is considered murder). 

Much of this sentiment is misplaced: the truth is, Roe v. Wade has already been narrowed drastically thanks to more recent decisions like Planned Parenthood v. Casey and Gonzales v. Carhart. But Roe has become the inaccurate, unwilling gold standard of abortion policy in the popular imagination, so talking about abortion in terms of that decision is not unreasonable, and particularly with more recent and far more limiting decisions, there is no reason for current justices to overturn the 1973 decision.

Roe v. Wade acknowledged that a woman’s decision to terminate her pregnancy was protected by the Constitution as encompassed in a right to personal privacy (which is, according to Justice Blackmun, found somewhere in the ninth or fourteenth amendments) and demonstrated by a huge bulk of previous decisions (Roe lists them all). However, Roe also determines that this right to an abortion, like the right to privacy from which it stems, is not absolute, and Roe provides a framework for potential regulation with reference to when a state's interest in a woman’s health or potential life begins. Planned Parenthood v. Casey has since modified this framework, so I will not discuss it here.

The main, basic, and painfully obvious reason the courts should not overturn Roe v. Wade, or any decisions afterwards, is that women should not be forced to carry unwanted pregnancies to term. It is painfully evident that no ban would ever stop the practice of abortion (abortions occur in 20% of pregnancies). Instead, the accessibility of abortion turns into a class issue in which wealthy women can fly or drive to another state (or country) to get access while others are forced to bare children they may not want and may not be able to afford. Nearly half of all pregnancies are unintentional (this number rises to 67% for black women), but nearly 90% of abortions occur before the ninth week of the pregnancy – long before almost any pregnancies are considered viable.

By maintaining Roe v. Wade and future precedents, there is no suggestion that federal or state governments should fund abortions; in fact, state governments can make getting an abortion excessively difficult, if they’d like, particularly after the first few weeks of pregnancy. What is being protected by Roe is the fundamental right for women to make informed decisions about their bodies and the bundles of cells they carry. Abortion is a medical procedure, and by protecting a woman’s right to privately obtain such a procedure in a limited context, we are permitting states to make decisions about what is best for their residents while allowing women at least partial control over their bodies in the process.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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Mara Hollander

I'm a Georgetown University alum working at a market research firm in DC. I have a background in research, political polling and campaigns, healthcare politics and policy, and gender and sexuality issues. I write about sex and gender because I believe you should be able to make decisions free from predetermination by these somewhat arbitrary distinctions - and I welcome and enjoy considerate debate about whether or not they should matter!

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