Roe v. Wade
U.S. Supreme Court Decisions on Abortion since 1973
Wisconsin Right-to-Life Laws Upheld When Challenged in Court
1973 Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton Decisions Legalized Abortion in the U.S. for the
Full Nine Months of Pregnancy
Prior to 1967, abortion was prohibited in all 50 states except when the mother’s life was in danger. Between 1967 and 1973, 18 states added further exceptions, mostly to allow abortion in cases of rape and incest, or for certain limited medical reasons, or on demand (New York).
In 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court rendered two decisions, Roe v. Wade 1 and Doe v. Bolton 2 which, taken together, have allowed legal abortion on demand at any stage of pregnancy in all 50 states. The two original decisions established legal abortion as follows:
- In the first three months of pregnancy, no one can interfere with a woman’s decision to abort her child.
- After the first three months, but before the “viability” of the unbornchild, an individual state can enact laws to protect the health of the mother but cannot prohibit the abortion of the unborn child.
- After “viability” of the unborn child, an individual state can, if it chooses to do so, enact laws to protect the unborn child but abortion must be allowed if the life or “health” of the mother is at stake. The Supreme Court defined “health” as “the medical judgment that may be exercised in light of all factors – physical, emotional, psychological, familial, and the woman’s age –relevant to the well-being of the patient. All these factors may relate to health.” 2
Consequently, the broad definition of “health” has made abortion legal up to the moment of birth.
- Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113
- Doe v. Bolton, 410 U.S. 179 (1973)
U.S. Supreme Court Decisions on Abortion since 1973 (Synopsis)
This is a brief summary of United States Supreme Court abortion decisions commencing with Roe v. Wade, giving the citations, date, and holding.
Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973). Roe invalidated a 19th century Texas statute prohibiting abortion except in cases where it is necessary to preserve the life of the mother. The Court based its finding on the right of privacy secured by the Due Process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment holding that it includes a fundamental right to decide whether or not to bring a pregnancy to term. The Court’s ruling was 7-2, with Rehnquist and White dissenting.
Doe v. Bolton, 410 U.S. 179 (1973). This is the companion case to Roe v. Wade. The Court invalidated Georgia’s "reform" abortion statute that permitted abortion where continued pregnancy would endanger the mother's life or health, including mental health, where the unborn child would likely be born with a serious defect, or where pregnancy resulted from rape. The Court also struck down the portion of the statute which required that the abortion be performed in an accredited hospital, and that two physicians confirm the performing physician's judgment of necessity for abortion. Doe is frequently cited for its definition of maternal "health" to include “all factors – physical, emotional, psychological, familial, and the woman’s age – relevant to the well-being of the patient", as a justification for legalized abortion during the last trimester of pregnancy. The Court’s ruling was 7-2, with Rehnquist and White dissenting.
Bigelow v. Virginia, 421 U.S. 809 (1975). The Court invalidated a state ban on advertising for abortion. The Court’s ruling was 7-2, with Rehnquist and White dissenting.
Connecticut v. Menillo, 423 U.S. 9 (1975). The Court upheld the Connecticut statute banning abortion as it applied to non-physicians. The Court’s ruling was 9-0.
Planned Parenthood of Central Mo. v. Danforth, 428 U.S. 52 (1976). The Court upheld the definition of "viability" under the state statute, and the requirement that the mother sign a consent form prior to abortion. The Court invalidated provisions requiring consent of a spouse (if any) to the abortion, requiring consent of parents for an abortion performed on a minor daughter, prohibiting use of the saline amniocentesis abortion procedure, and requiring those performing abortions to exercise professional skill and care to preserve the life of the unborn child. The Court’s ruling was 5-4, with Stevens, White, Burger and Rehnquist dissenting.
Singleton v. Wulff, 428 U.S. 106 (1976). The Court held that physicians may challenge abortion funding restrictions on behalf of their female patients seeking abortions. This case has had a strong impact upon abortion litigation by allowing physicians to act as plaintiffs instead of requiring individual women to sue, as in the case of Roe v. Wade. The Court’s ruling was 9-0, with Powell, Burger, Stewart and Rehnquist dissenting in part.
Belloti v. Baird (I), 428 U.S. 132 (1976). The Court abstained from ruling on the constitutionality of a Massachusetts parental consent statute pertaining to abortion until resolution by state courts on how the statute is to be constructed. The Court’s ruling was 9-0.
Beal v. Doe, 432 U.S. 438 (1977). This is the first in a series of 1977 abortion funding cases. The Court upheld Pennsylvania’s limit on use of Medicaid funds for abortions to cthose that are "medically necessary" against a challenge that this policy violates Title XIX of the Social Security Act. The Court’s ruling was 6-3, with Brennan, Marshall and Blackmun dissenting.
Maher v. Roe, 432 U.S. 464 (1977). This is the second in a series of 1977 abortion funding cases. The Court upheld a Connecticut regulation limiting the use of Medicaid funds to abortions that are "medically necessary." The regulation was challenged on constitutional grounds of due process and equal protection. The Court reasoned that a state is free to use its power of funding to encourage childbirth over abortion. It also noted that "a woman has at least an equal right to choose to carry her fetus to term as to choose to abort it." The Court’s ruling was 6-3, with Brennan, Marshall and Blackmun dissenting.
Poelker v. Doe, 432 U.S. 519 (1977). This is the third in a series of 1977 abortion funding cases. The Court upheld a St. Louis policy against performance of an abortion in public hospitals. The Court’s ruling was 6-3, with Brennan, Marshall and Blackmun dissenting.
Colautti v. Franklin, 439 U.S. 379 (1979). The Court invalidated a Pennsylvania statute creating a standard for determination of viability of the unborn child, and requiring the use of an abortion technique providing the best opportunity for the unborn child to be “aborted alive” in abortions after viability. The Court’s ruling was 6-3, with White, Rehnquist, and Burger dissenting.
Belloti v. Baird (II), 443 U.S. 622 (1979). The Court invalidated a Massachusetts statute requiring parental consent, and held that states requiring the consent of parents to abortions upon minors must afford minors an alternative opportunity for authorization of the abortion where the minor may demonstrate that either she is mature enough to make her own decision, or that the abortion would be in her best interests. The Court’s ruling was 8-1, with White dissenting.
Harris v. McRae, 448 U.S. 297 (1980). The Court upheld the Hyde Amendment restricting the use of federal funds for abortion to those necessary to preserve the life of the mother. In a New York federal court, the Hyde Amendment was challenged as a denial of due process, equal protection, freedom of religion, and as an establishment of Roman Catholic dogma in violation of the First Amendment. The Court’s ruling was 5-4, with Brennan, Marshall, Blackmun and Stevens dissenting.
Williams v. Zbaraz, 448 U.S. 358 (1980). This is the companion case to Harris v. McRae. The Court upheld an Illinois statute prohibiting use of state funds for an abortion except where it is necessary to preserve the life of the mother undergoing the abortion. The Court’s ruling was 5-4, with Brennan, Marshall, Blackmun and Stevens dissenting.
H.L v. Matheson, 450 U.S. 398 (1981). The Court upheld a Utah statute requiring notification of parents, if possible, prior to performing an abortion on unemancipated minors. The Court’s ruling was 6-3, with Brennan, Marshall and Blackmun dissenting.
Akron v. Akron Center for Reproductive Health, 462 U.S. 416 (1983). The Court invalidated an Akron Ordinance requiring all second-trimester abortions to be performed in hospitals; requiring consent of parents for all abortions performed on minors under the age of 15; requiring detailed information on medical risks of abortion, fetal development, and abortion alternatives to be given to women prior to abortions; and requiring a 24-hour waiting period between giving the required information and performance of the abortion. This case is noted for the dissenting opinion written by Justice O'Connor in her first abortion case. The Court’s ruling was 6-3, with O'Connor, Rehnquist, and White dissenting. This case was later rejected by the plurality in Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey, 505 U.S. 833 (1992) (see below).
Planned Parenthood Assn. of Kansas City, Mo. v. Ashcroft, 462 U.S. 476 (1983). The Court invalidated a second-trimester hospitalization requirement, but upheld regulations pertaining to parental consent, the presence of a second physician at post-viability abortions, and pathology reports. The Court’s ruling was 6-3 on overturning the hospital requirement, with O'Connor, White, and Rehnquist dissenting, and 5-4 on all other issues, with Brennan, Marshall, Blackmun, and Stevens dissenting.
Simonopoulos v. Virginia, 462 U.S. 506 (1983). The Court upheld a law requiring the performance of second-trimester abortion to take place in licensed hospitals or clinics. The definition of terms was key to this decision. The Court’s ruling was 8-1, with Stevens dissenting.
Diamond v. Charles, 476 U.S. 54 (1986). The Court dismissed an appeal brought by two physicians from a ruling striking down an Illinois abortion statute, holding that failure of the state to join in the appeal left the Court with no jurisdiction to resolve the matter. The Court’s ruling was 9-0.
Thornburgh v. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), 476 U.S. 747 (1986). The Court invalidated provisions of the Pennsylvania Abortion Control Act concerning informed consent, informational reporting requirements, and performance of abortion after viability. This case is notable for the hostility of a majority of five Justices to apparently mild forms of abortion regulation, and strong dissents from four Justices calling for re-examination or reversal of Roe v. Wade. The Court’s ruling was 5-4, with Burger, White, Rehnquist, and O'Connor dissenting. This case was later rejected by the plurality in Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey, 505 U.S. 833 (1992) (see below).
Hartigan v. Zbaraz, 484 U.S. 171 (1987). The Court upheld a lower court ruling overturning a required waiting period. The Court’s ruling was 4-4, with Burger, White, Rehnquist and O'Connor "dissenting."
Webster v. Reproductive Health Services, 492 U.S. 490 (1989). The Court upheld requirements for viability tests after twenty weeks of pregnancy and barring both the use of public facilities and public employees from participating in abortion, except to save the life of the mother. The Court’s ruling was 5-4, with Blackmun, Brennan, Marshall and Stevens dissenting in part.
Hodgson v. Minnesota, 497 U.S. 417 (1990). By a vote of 5-4, the Court invalidated a Minnesota law requiring the notification of both parents without a procedure for judicial bypass of the notice requirement. However, the Court, also by a 5-4 vote, upheld another provision that required the two-parent notification, but included a procedure for judicial waiver, as well as a 48-hour waiting period for minors.
Ohio v. Akron Center for Reproductive Health, 497 U.S. 502 (1990). A provision that a doctor provide timely notice to a parent of a minor seeking an abortion was ruled constitutional, if a judicial bypass option is open to a minor who can demonstrate mature judgment, parental abuse, or that the notice requirement is not in her best interest. The Court’s ruling was 6-3, with Blackmun, Brennan, and Marshall dissenting.
Rust v. Sullivan, 500 U.S. 173 (1991). The Court upheld U.S. Department of Health and Human Services regulations prohibiting abortion counseling and referral with Title X family planning funds. The Court’s ruling was 5-4, with Blackmun, Stevens, O'Connor, and Marshall dissenting.
Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey, 505 U.S. 833 (1992). The Court began its discussion with an examination of whether the Roe v. Wade decision should be overruled, concluding that “the essential holding of Roe v. Wade should be retained and once again reaffirmed.” The Court also affirmed “the principle that the State has legitimate interests from the outset of the pregnancy in protecting … the life of the fetus that may become a child.” In applying a new, less restrictive “undue burden” standard, the Court held that the informed consent requirements, 24-hour waiting period, the parental consent provision, and reporting and recordkeeping requirement of a Pennsylvania statute were constitutional. However, the spousal consent provision was held to be unconstitutional. The Court’s ruling was 5-4, with Rehnquist, Scalia, White, and Thomas dissenting and encouraging the reversal of Roe v. Wade.
Dalton v. Little Rock Family Planning Services, 516 U.S. 474 (1996). At issue was a district court injunction invalidating Arkansas' Constitutional Amendment 68 (a prohibition on the use of state funds to pay for abortion except to save the life of the mother) as violating the federal Hyde Amendment as interpreted by the Clinton Administration (mandating payment for abortions when pregnancy is the result of rape or incest as well). The Court held that the injunction was overly broad and ordered that the injunction only enjoin the enforcement of the Amendment to the extent that the Amendment imposes obligations inconsistent with federal law. The Court’s ruling was 9-0.
Janklow v. Planned Parenthood, Sioux Falls Clinic, 517 U.S. 1174 (1996). The Court denied review of an appeals court ruling that held a parental notice statute which had no parental bypass provision to be unconstitutional. The Court’s ruling was 6-3, with Scalia, Rehnquist, and Thomas dissenting.
Leavitt v. Jane L., 518 U.S. 137 (1996). The Court upheld the use of severability clauses by state legislators. The Court’s ruling was 5-4, with Stevens, Souter, Ginsburg and Breyer dissenting.
Lambert v. Wicklund. 520 U.S. 292 (1997). The Court upheld a Montana parental notification statute. The Court’s ruling was 9-0.
Mazurek v. Armstrong, 520 U.S. 968 (1997). The Court upheld a Montana statute that restricted the performance of abortions to licensed physicians. The Court’s ruling was 6-3, with Stevens, Ginsburg and Breyer dissenting.
Voinovich v. Women’s Medical Professional Corp. 523 U.S. 1036 (1998). The Court denied certiorari in a case dealing with Ohio’s ban on brain suction abortions. The Court’s ruling was 6-3, with Thomas, Rehnquist and Scalia dissenting.
Stenberg v. Carhart, 530 U.S. 914 (2000). The Court struck down Nebraska’s law banning partial-birth abortions which are performed by partially “delivering into the vagina a living unborn child, or a substantial portion” of the unborn child, “before killing the unborn child and completing the delivery.” The law provided an exception if it was ever necessary to save a mother’s life. Partial-birth abortions are usually performed at 20 weeks gestation or later. The Court’s ruling was 5-4, with Rehnquist, Scalia, Kennedy and Thomas dissenting.
Ayotte v. Planned Parenthood of New England, 546 U.S. 320 (2006). The Court unanimously remanded New Hampshire’s parental notification law, to the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals. The Court’s ruling was 9-0.
Gonzales v. Carhart, 550 U.S. ___, 127 S.Ct 1610 (2007). The Court upheld as constitutional the federal Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003. The federal law defined a partial-birth abortion as a procedure which is performed by partially delivering an unborn child “until, in the case of a head-first presentation, the entire fetal head is outside the body of the mother, or in the case of breech presentation, any part of the fetal trunk past the navel is outside the body of the mother, for the purpose of performing an overt act” that will kill the partially delivered unborn child. The law provides an exception if it is ever necessary to save a mother’s life. Partial-birth abortions are usually performed at 20 weeks gestation or later. The Court’s ruling was 5-4, with Ginsburg, Stevens, Souter and Breyer dissenting.
Wisconsin Right-to-Life Laws Upheld When Challenged in Court
This is a brief summary of court decisions upholding right-to-life laws that have been challenged in court.
Woman’s Right to Know Act
In 1996, the Woman’s Right to Know Act was enacted in Wisconsin. This law, which is set forth in s. 253.10 of the Wisconsin Statutes, is a detailed informed consent law requiring the voluntary and informed consent of a woman for an abortion. Unless a medical emergency exists, the physician is required to provide specific information to a woman before an abortion can be performed followed by a reflection period (usually 24 hours) to allow the woman the opportunity to consider whether or not she will consent to an abortion. This law also requires that the woman be given printed materials prepared by the state, including a fetal development booklet and a statewide directory of services which includes pro-life pregnancy help centers.
Before the Woman’s Right to Know Act could go into effect it was challenged in federal court by several physicians who regularly perform abortions and Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin. These plaintiffs claimed the Woman’s Right to Know Act constituted an “undue burden” on the right of women in Wisconsin to obtain an abortion. In Karlin v. Foust, 975 F.Supp. 1177 (W.D.Wis. 1997), trial court Judge Barbara Crabb held that the court was “bound by the holding in [the 1992 U.S. Supreme Court Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey decision] to find that most of the obstacles set up by [the Woman’s Right to Know Act] do not constitute undue burdens that would make that state law unconstitutional as a whole.” The court found the law to be constitutional, but severed a few provisions that were found to be unconstitutional.
The case was then appealed to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals. In Karlin v. Foust, 188 F.3d 446 (7th Cir. 1999), the appeals court also found the Woman’s Right to Know Act to be constitutional. The appeals court reinstated some provisions that were severed by the trial court and reinterpreted other provisions of the law.
The Woman’s Right to Know Act went into effect on May 31, 1998 during the appeal process.
Partial-Birth Abortion Ban
In 1998, the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban was enacted in Wisconsin. This law, which is set forth in s. 940.16 of the Wisconsin Statutes, banned partial-birth abortions in Wisconsin and the penalty for committing this crime was life imprisonment.
Before the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban could go into effect it was challenged in federal court by Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin and several physicians who regularly perform abortions. They claimed the law was unconstitutionally vague because it could be construed to apply to other abortion techniques and that the law placed an “undue burden” on a “woman’s right to an abortion.” In Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin v. Doyle, 44 F.Supp.2d 975 (W.D.Wis. 1999), trial court Judge John Shabaz found that the criminal statute banning partial-birth abortions was constitutional based on the extensive evidence presented at the full trial of the case.
The case was then appealed to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals. In Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin v. Doyle, decided October 26, 1999, the appeals court also found the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban to be constitutional.
The case was then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Unfortunately, the court refused to hear the appeal and chose to hear the case from Nebraska instead. The Wisconsin Ban on Partial-Birth Abortion is currently unenforceable because the U.S. Supreme Court’s Stenberg v. Carhart decision striking down Nebraska’s ban on partial-birth abortion also struck down similar state bans on partial-birth abortion in 2000.