On January 22nd, 1973, the Supreme Court decided through a (7-2) ruling that “unduly restrictive state regulation of abortion in unconstitutional.” This decision, known as Roe v. Wade, arose as a result of Jane Roe, a name used to safeguard the identity of the plaintiff Norma McCorvey, taking federal action against the district attorney of Dallas County, Henry Wade. Roe argued that the state laws regarding the illegal nature of abortion attempted to inhibit her right to personal privacy, which was protected under the First, Fourth, Fifth, and Ninth Amendments. The Supreme Court decision was eventually made on the basis that the Fourteenth Amendment defends the right to privacy against the state, violating a woman’s right to choose whether to have an abortion or not. The case concluded that the state may not control a decision on abortion until the second trimester, in which regulations may be instituted on abortion that are related to maternal health - once the the third trimester has begun, the state may prohibit abortions entirely as long as the law contains exceptions for which an abortion is needed to protect the life or health of the mother.
While attempts to limit the scope of Roe v. Wade are not new, a recent legislative action by Texas Governor Greg Abbott will severely threaten the protections that Roe v. Wade promises. On May 19th, Abbott signed a measure that prohibits abortions in Texas as early as six weeks, which is before some women know that they are pregnant; essentially banning abortions as a whole given that the six-weeks cutoff is two weeks after a missed menstrual cycle, according to the Texas Tribune. Authored in the chamber by State Senator Bryan Hughes, the “heartbeat bill” will ban abortions after a heartbeat has been detected; an amendment to the bill was later added by House Representative Shelby Slawson to include cases in which the fetus was conceived through rape or incest. The bill differs from other previous bills that attempt to limit Roe v. Wade in that the bill allows private citizens to involve themselves with abortions that may occur exclusive of their personal decisions, giving private citizens the right to sue abortion providers or anyone who helps someone get an abortion after a fetal heartbeat has been detected, which could potentially include “family members, abortion funds, rape crisis counselors, and other medical professionals.” Moreover, plaintiffs who sue physicians will be awarded a minimum of $10,000 in damages and court fees. Despite opposing arguments, including one from House Representative Donna Howard who cited medical officials to say that the “heartbeat” during the six-week ultrasounds are “electrically induced flickering” of fetal tissue, the bill is still set to pass in September.
Over 56,000 abortions were performed on Texas residents in 2019, with Texas law banning abortions after 20 weeks. However, the pandemic has proven to exacerbate the existing limitations on abortions within Texas, as *NPR *reports that the early months of the pandemic saw an almost complete ban on abortions by the governor in an effort to preseve medical supplies and resources, leading to other Southwest states receiving a large influx of Texas patients. Texas has always had a thorough history of attempting to pass abortion restrictions, including a 2011 mandate that required women to view a sonogram and listen to the heartbeat of the fetus prior to receiving the abortion. Additionally, the city of Lubbock elected to pass an ordinance that would ban abortions, becoming the largest municipality out of more than 20 municipalities who have taken this action.
Pro-choice advocates have expressed a great deal of concern over the past few years in response to the jeapordization of Roe v. Wade, drawing attention to the expansive inequities that exist within the reproductive health sphere. A 2018 study titled “Socioeconomic Outcomes of Women Who Receive and Women Who Are Denied Wanted Abortions in the United States” found that women who were not able to receive abortions had higher odds of poverty six months later than women who received abortions. They were also “less likely to have full-time work and more likely to get some form of public assistance,” indicating the dire financial implications for women who are not allowed an abortion. The study also suggested that laws that “impose a gestational limit for abortion or otherwise restrict access to abortion will result in worsened economic outcomes for women,” highlighting the reality that many pro-choice advocates have vocalized at great lengths in order to stymie the passing of such restrictive bills.
A coalition of 370 lawyers have signed a letter opposing the bill, pointing out both the unconstitutional restriction it imposes but also the manipulation of the legal system to sue people who may aid a mother in receiving an abortion. Given the Supreme Court’s new conservative majority (6-3), it is likely that states will continue to challenge Roe v. Wade and its position in society.