Sometimes it feels like that for as long as there's been a United States, there's been a debate about abortion, and, to be fair, this feeling is kind of accurate, since women's control over their own bodies (and the lack thereof) is an entrenched, resurgent part of history, whether it be in the form of the chastity belt, the tampon, or abortion legislation. 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, a history lesson that will take you back to the 1970s, and lead you up to the present. 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.
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.
Planned Parenthood of Southern Pennsylvania v. Casey
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.
Gonzalez v. Carhart
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.
Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedt
What it did: Struck down a Texas law which imposed strict requirements on abortion clinics.
How people reacted: The National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (NARAL) said, "This decision brings us one step closer to a world in which all women are empowered to exercise their reproductive freedom—including the right to a safe and legal abortion." The president of the Family Research Council said, "The Supreme Court’s decision to strike down HB2 undermines the health and safety of vulnerable women. This decision is a loss for women and gives the abortion industry a free pass."
The Whole Woman's Health clinic in Texas sued John Hellerstedt, the Commissioner of the Texas Department of State Health Services, over a state law which required doctors at abortion clinics to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of the center, and required abortion clinics to abide by the same regulations as ambulatory surgery centers (such as having minimum hallway widths). The Court referenced Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which set the "undue burden" standard, in its 2016 ruling that these restrictions placed an undue burden on women seeking an abortion.