Court Decisions on U.S. Abortion

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Prior to 1967, abortion was prohibited in all 50 states except when the mother’s life was in danger. Between 1967 and 1973, 18 states added further exceptions, mostly to allow abortion in the case of rape or incest, or for certain limited medical reasons, or on demand (New York).

Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton, 1973: The U.S. Supreme Court rendered two decisions in 1973, Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton, which taken together allowed legal abortion on demand at any stage of pregnancy in all 50 states. The two original decisions established legal abortion as follows:

  • In the first three months of pregnancy, no one can interfere with a woman’s decision to abort her unborn child.
  • After the first three months, but before the “viability” of the unborn child, an individual state can enact laws to protect the health of the mother but cannot prohibit the abortion of the unborn child. Viability is defined to mean the ability of the child to live outside the mother, with or without life support systems.
  • After “viability” of the unborn child, an individual state can, if it chooses to do so, enact laws to protect the unborn child but abortion must be allowed if the life or “health” of the mother is at stake. The Supreme Court in Doe v. Bolton defined “health” as “the medical judgment that may be exercised in light of all defined “health” as “the medical judgment that may be exercised in light of all factors – physical, emotional, psychological, familial, and the woman’s age – relevant to the well-being of the patient. All these factors may relate to health.”1

Consequently, the broad definition of “health” had made abortion legal up to the moment of birth.

On June 24, 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its ruling to reverse the Roe decision, holding that there is no longer a federal constitutional right to abortion. It should be noted this action by the Supreme Court does not make abortion illegal in the United States. Rather, the ruling enables states to enact their own laws on abortion—either banning or limiting the practice or making the practice legal.

1 Roe v. Wade, 420 U.S. 113; Doe v. Bolton, 410 U.S. 179 (1973)

Other Key Rulings on Abortion

Webster v. Reproductive Health Services, 1989: The U.S. Supreme Court upheld a regulation that barred public facilities and employees from performing abortions.

Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey, 1992: High Court affirmed the central holding of Roe v. Wade.

Stenberg v. Carhart, 2000: Court struck down a Nebraska law banning the partial-birth abortion procedure.

Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, 2022: The U.S. Supreme Court held that the Constitution of the United States does not confer any right to abortion, and overruled both Roe v. Wade (1973) and Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992).




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