Today is the forty-first anniversary of the landmark abortion decision, Roe v. Wade, in which the Supreme Court eliminated the abortion laws of all 50 states, and in the companion case of Doe v. Bolton — which was released on the same day — which eliminated state health and safety regulations of abortion. Last year I noted nine things everyone should know about Roe. Here are nine more:
1. The case was filed by Norma McCorvey, known in court documents as Jane ROE against Henry WADE, the district attorney of Dallas County from 1951 to 1987, who enforced a Texas law that prohibited abortion, except to save a woman’s life.
2. In 1969, McCorvey was 22 years old, divorced, homeless, and pregnant for the third time (she had placed her first two children for adoption). An adoption agency connected her with two young lawyers fresh out of law school who were eager to challenge the Texas statutes on abortion. McCorvey only met with her lawyers twice-once for beer and pizza, the other time to sign an affidavit (which she didn’t read). In order to speed things up McCorvey lied and told them she had been raped. She never appeared in court, and she found out about the infamous ruling from the newspapers. The baby she was seeking to abort was born and placed for adoption.
3. When McCorvey met her lawyers she didn’t know the meaning of “abortion.” Her lawyers told her that abortion just dealt with a piece of tissue, and that it was like passing a period rather than the termination of a distinct, living, and whole human organism. Abortion was a taboo topic in 1970, and Norma had dropped out of school at the age of 14. She knew that John Wayne movies talked about “aborting the mission,” so she thought it meant to “go back”—as in, going back to not being pregnant. She honestly believed “abortion” meant a child was prevented from coming into existence.
4. In the late-1990s, McCorvey was working at a Dallas abortion clinic when the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue moved its offices next door. She says Rev. Phillip Benham, Operation Rescue’s national director, started “sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ” with her. She later became a Christian and committed pro-life advocate. 5. Together, Roe and Doe effectively forbid states from prohibiting abortion even in the final stages of pregnancy. The Court said (in the 1992 Casey decision) that “[w]e reject the trimester framework, which we do not consider to be part of the essential holding of Roe.”
6. The Court’s majority relied heavily on popular, but unproved and later disproved, 1970s-era evidence that there was an urgent need for population control in the United States. As legal scholar Clark Forsythe explains, “Fear of ‘the population crisis’ was a huge influence. [The Court] drank that in without any trial or evidence or expert opinion in the lower courts. There was no evidence. There was no record. They absorbed that through the media.”
7. Without any record evidence, the court in 1973 also adopted the medical myth that “abortion was safer than childbirth.” That influential myth, says Forsythe, has been told to millions of women considering abortion ever since. “It was wrong in 1973, and it’s wrong today. The myth is based on the mechanical comparison of the published U.S. maternal (childbirth) mortality rate and the published U.S. abortion mortality rate. These two rates are like apples and oranges; what goes into their numerators and denominators is completely different.”
8. Many pro-life advocates mistakenly believe that state laws to define human life as beginning at conception (or fertilization) would pose as challenge to Roe. But as Forsythe notes, “no state can – by statute or constitutional amendment – change the meaning of the 14th Amendment to the federal constitution.” Additionally, he explains, “not one justice on the current Supreme Court supports the proposition that the unborn are protected as “persons” within the meaning of the 14th Amendment. Not one. All have rejected it, explicitly or implicitly.”
9. Many Americans believe the myth that “overturning” Roe would make abortion immediately illegal everywhere. However, most states have repealed their pre-Roe prohibitions. Fifteen other states have state judicial versions of Roe that would prevent any prohibitions. The reality is that if Roe were overturned today, abortion would be legal tomorrow, up to viability, in at least 42 states and probably all 50.
Other posts in this series: