Roe v. Wade

Studying the Roe v. Wade case, or interested in learning more? We break down the summary, brief, key players, facts and outcomes for you on TestMax.

Roe v. Wade Summary

The Supreme Court ruled in favor of an unwed pregnant woman who sought and was denied an abortion. The Court decided that a Texas statute, which prohibited abortions except in cases in which the life of the mother was at stake, was unconstitutional as a violation of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. That is, the Court held that the Texas statute, without due process of law, deprived women of the right to choose to terminate their pregnancies.

Key Players in Roe v. Wade

  • 1Appellant: An unmarried pregnant woman, Roe, who wanted to end her pregnancy and was denied the opportunity to do so by Texas authorities.
  • 2Appellee: Named appellee is Dallas County District Attorney Henry Wade, representing the State of Texas.

Roe v. Wade Brief

The central theme of this case was abortion and the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Roe v. Wade Facts

Roe, an unwed pregnant woman, attempted to get an abortion in Texas; but Texas law prohibited abortions except in cases in which the pregnancy threatens the life of the mother. Roe did not have the money to travel to get the abortion completed in another state where it was legal, and her life was not in danger due to the pregnancy. Based on the Texas anti-abortion law, Roe was prevented by Texas authorities from receiving the abortion. Roe claimed that the law violated the right to privacy granted to her by the Constitution. The remedies Roe sought in filing her lawsuit against the state of Texas included a declaratory judgement deeming the anti-abortion law vague as well as unconstitutional and an injunction allowing abortions in Texas to proceed. The Texas state court found that the anti-abortion law was unconstitutional but refused to grant the injunction. The appeal to the Supreme Court concerned the state court’s refusal to grant the injunction.

The Roe v. Wade Decision

The outcome of the case was a ruling in favor of the plaintiff and a determination that due process is denied to a woman when she is not allowed to elect to have an abortion other than in cases where her health is at stake. That is, the Court held that the Texas anti-abortion law violated the plaintiff’s right to privacy and, specifically, the “right” to “choose to terminate her pregnancy”.

The Court, in its decision, started by examining the standing of the appellants to file the lawsuit. The Court found a “logical nexus between the status asserted and the claim sought to be adjudicated”, noting that Roe had standing based on her status as a single, pregnant woman who was denied access to an abortion based on the Texas anti-abortion law. It also noted that the fact that Roe’s pregnancy had already ended was irrelevant to the issue of standing because any pregnancy that is the subject of a lawsuit cannot be expected to last to the appellate stage of a case.

In evaluating Roe’s argument that the Texas anti-abortion law violated her right to privacy included within the Fourteenth Amendment, the Court balanced the encroachment on the right to privacy involved in denying access to an abortion against the government interest supported by enforcing anti-abortion laws. Roe had argued for relief based on an alleged violation of her right to “personal, marital, familial, and sexual privacy" afforded to her by the Bill of Rights. The Court clarified that, while the “Constitution does not explicitly mention any right of privacy”, the kind of right to personal privacy claimed by Roe is implied by the Fourteenth Amendment and does include the woman’s right to choose to terminate her pregnancy. The harm to the state in allowing a pregnancy to go forward would pale, the Court noted, in comparison to potential medical harms, psychological harms, or stigmas posed to an individual by an unwanted pregnancy. The Court did not go so far as to say that abortions should be allowed without restriction but, rather, defined a framework within which regulation of abortion would be appropriate. The Court stated that the right to choose to have an abortion is limited by state interests in health issues surrounding pregnancies. The Court’s decision reviewed the historical rationale behind anti-abortion laws, including the government interests regarding “protecting the potentiality of human life” and in “protecting the health of pregnant women”, noting that those interests are time-limited and are not “compelling” for the government until after the first trimester of a pregnancy when a live birth is almost certain. It noted that physicians and patients should have broad discretion in deciding whether to terminate a pregnancy before the pregnancy gets to the point where it involves a compelling government interest.

Applying that analysis to the Texas statute at issue, the Court concluded that the Texas law was “overbroad” because it did not allow for physicians and their patients to make termination decisions in the fragile early stages of a pregnancy and did not allow for other reasons for terminating a pregnancy. The Court concluded that valid government regulation of abortion takes place only after the first trimester and that, prior to that stage, denial of access to an abortion deprives citizens of fundamental liberties without due process of law. The Court left the decision of whether to impose an injunction on the state because, regardless, the state was obligated to recognize the Supreme Court’s holding that the law was unconstitutional and repeal the law (or adjust it to conform to the standards that the Court set out with respect to regulation in various stages of a pregnancy).

Key Takeaways for Law Students

  • 1State laws which broadly allow a state to deny an abortion to a woman are unconstitutional because they violate the right to personal privacy included in the Fourteenth Amendment.
  • 2The privacy rights related to the right to choose to terminate a pregnancy are “not absolute”. They should be balanced against “important state interests in regulation”.