The United States Supreme Court has overturned by a 6-3 majority ‘Roe v. Wade’, the court’s landmark 1973 judgment that made abortion a constitutional right. The decision will transform life for women in America. Near total bans on abortion will come into effect in about half of the country’s states.


What is the Roe v. Wade case, 1973?

  • It was a landmark decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in which the Court ruled that the Constitution of the U.S. protects a pregnant woman’s liberty to choose to have an abortion without excessive government restriction.
  • It struck down laws that made abortion illegal in several states, and ruled that abortion would be legal up to the trimester. 
  • It fuelled an ongoing abortion debate in the U.S. about whether or to what extent abortion should be legal, who should decide the legality of abortion and what the role of moral and religious views in the political sphere should be.
  • The Court’s ruling was criticised by some in the legal community and some called the decision an example of judicial activism.


Planned Parenthood v. Casey case, 1992

  • In this case, the Supreme Court revisited and modified its rulings in Roe v. Wade judgement.
  • The Court reaffirmed that a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion is constitutionally protected.
  • However, it rejected Roe’s trimester framework in favour of a foetal viability (the time after which a foetus can survive outside the womb) threshold and overruled the strict scrutiny criteria for considering abortion restrictions.


Confusion over foetal viability threshold

  • Foetal viability was around 28 weeks (7 months) at the time of the Roe judgement. Experts now agree that advances in medicine have brought the threshold down to 23 or 24 weeks (6 months or a little less).
  • In 2018, the state of Mississippi (the Republican-majority legislature) prohibited most abortions after 15 weeks, considerably earlier than foetal viability (citing the heartbeat law – i.e. the heartbeat starts around 15 weeks) and earlier than Roe, initiating a direct challenge to the 1973 decision.


Significance of above judgements

They recognised the concept of personal liberty as enshrined in the Fourteenth Amendment against government interference with intensely personal decisions.


What will happen in the US now?

Since there is no federal law protecting the right to abortion in the US, the overturning of ‘Roe’ leaves abortion laws entirely up to the states. Conservative states will likely bring back restrictive laws that prohibited abortions before the Supreme Court set the foetal viability standard in 1973.