The Burger Court (1969–86)

Court Decisions

What did the Court decide in Roe v. Wade?

The Burger Court ruled 7–2 in Roe v. Wade (1973) that the “Fourteenth Amendment’s concept of personal liberty … is broad enough to encompass a woman’s decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy.” The Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause generally protects individuals’ rights to “life, liberty and property” from state interference. According to the Court, the meaning of “liberty” in the Due Process Clause includes a woman’s personal, qualified right to have an abortion. The Court did not rule that women have an unfettered, or free, constitutional right to decide whether to have an abortion. Rather, Justice Harry Blackmun’s opinion balanced a woman’s interest in personal privacy against the state’s interest in protecting future life. Blackmun’s opinion divided the pregnancy term into three periods, or trimesters. During the first trimester, women have an unqualified right to have an abortion. During the second trimester, the state can regulate abortions “in ways that are reasonably related to maternal health.” During the last trimester—when the fetus becomes viable or able to live outside the mother’s womb—the state can regulate and even prohibit abortions. The Court also determined that a fetus was not a person within the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The Court’s decision invalidated a Texas law that criminalized abortions except when the abortion was necessary to save the life of the mother.


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