US history The Most Important Supreme Court Cases About Abortion  

Katherine Ripley
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List Rules Vote up the cases that had the biggest impact on abortion legislation in the US.

Abortion has long been a contentious political issue in the United States, with battles in all three branches of government at the state and federal level. This list contains the most important Supreme Court cases about abortion. This history lesson will take you back to the 1970s, and lead you all the way up to the present year. And you can be sure that the battle is not over yet; there will certainly be more US Supreme Court abortion cases.

Some of these Supreme Court abortion rulings were victories for pro-choice groups, and some of them were victories for pro-life groups. Some could be interpreted as wins or losses for either side. Many of the cases are complex, but this list includes the most important takeaways that everyone should know. Vote up the cases that had the biggest impact on abortion legislation in the US.

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Roe v. Wade


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What it did: Struck down a Texas law which prohibited abortion except to save a woman's life and affirmed a woman's constitutional right to decide whether to continue a pregnancy.
 
How people reacted: TIME magazine called the decision "bold and uncompromising." Feminist organizations were pleased with the outcome, but pro-life activists protested and began lobbying for a constitutional amendment that would outlaw abortion. Their efforts did not succeed.

Roe v. Wade was the landmark 1973 decision which declared abortion a "fundamental right." It rendered unconstitutional all state laws which prohibited women from getting abortions except in rare cases. The case allowed states to pass abortion bans only in the third trimester of pregnancy when a fetus is viable, and to pass abortion regulations only pertaining to the second trimester of pregnancy, and only for the purpose of protecting women's health.

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Gonzalez v. Carhart


Gonzalez v. Carhart is listed (or ranked) 2 on the list The Most Important Supreme Court Cases About Abortion
Photo: Danny Hammontree/via Flickr/CC BY NC-ND 2.0

What it did: Upheld the federal ban on partial-birth abortion, passed by Congress and signed by President Bush in 2003.
 
How people reacted: The American Life League released a statement saying "partial birth infanticide is cruel and inhumane" but lamenting the fact that the decision still "accommodates Roe v. Wade." The Center for Reproductive Rights said Gonzalez v. Carhart "paves the way for state legislatures and Congress to enact additional bans on abortions, including those that doctors say are safe and medically necessary."

In 2007, Gonzalez effectively reversed the Stenberg v. Carhart decision, which had previously struck down bans on partial-birth abortion. It was a significant case because it upheld the ban even though it made no exception for protecting a woman's health.

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Planned Parenthood of Southern Pennsylvania v. Casey


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What it did: Allowed states to enact any abortion restrictions as long as those restrictions are not "substantial obstacles" or an "undue burden" for women seeking an abortion.
 
How people reacted: Pro-life groups took this decision and ran with it, lobbying to pass restrictive abortion laws, some of which (Whole Women's Health v. Hellerstedt) were again challenged all the way up to the Supreme Court.

The plaintiffs in Planned Parenthood of Southern California v. Casey attempted to challenge a Pennsylvania law requiring specific "informed consent" and a 24-hour waiting period before getting an abortion. That law was upheld by the Supreme Court in 1992, because it built in provisions for women to bypass some of its requirements if they could prove it would cause them undue burden. Casey was significant because it set the "undue burden" precedent which opened the door for more restrictions on abortion than Roe had allowed.

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Stenberg v. Carhart


Stenberg v. Carhart is listed (or ranked) 4 on the list The Most Important Supreme Court Cases About Abortion
Photo: Danny Hammontree/via Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

What it did: Struck down a Nebraska law banning partial birth abortion, and rendered similar laws in 30 other states unenforceable.
 
How people reacted: In 2003, Congress passed the Partial-Birth Abortion Act, which was nearly identical to the Nebraska law which had been struck down by Stenberg v. Carhart in 2000. The Center for Reproductive Rights came out in opposition to the law, and it too was struck down. 

"Partial birth abortion" is another name for a medical procedure called intact dilation and extraction, in which a fetus is removed intact from the uterus, which sometimes requires collapsing its skull. This method is only used for abortions and miscarriages that take place after the 16th week of pregnancy. In Stenberg, the Supreme Court struck down Nebraska's ban on this procedure, because there was no exception for preserving a woman's health, and because the wording of the law was so vague that it could outlaw other methods of abortion as well.