What did Roe v. Wade accomplish?

Roe v. Wade, decided in 1973, legalized abortion nationally on the basis that Americans have an inherent right to privacy that includes the right of a woman to decide whether to have children and to make that decision with her doctor without state interference. In Roe, the Supreme Court stated that during the first three months of pregnancy, state laws and regulations could not interfere with the right to have an abortion. In the second three months, states could regulate abortion, but only to protect the mother's health. In the last three months, at the point of viability -- when the fetus could survive outside the womb -- states could bar abortion except to save the life or health of the mother.

Was abortion legal before Roe v. Wade?

Abortion was legal in the United States up until the last half of the 19th century, when states began passing laws against it, largely at the behest of newly organized physicians. By 1910, all but one state had criminalized abortion except when necessary to save the life of the mother. Eventually a new movement achieved legalization in three states prior to Roe -- Alaska, Hawaii, and New York.

Has Roe meant that abortions are now widely accessible?

No. The Supreme Court later upheld a ban on using federal funds to pay for abortion and has allowed several state laws that hinder access to abortion. Congress argues over various spending bans every year during the appropriations process. As a result, depending on what Congress does in any given year, millions of poor women, federal employees, federal prisoners, and others whose health care is paid for or insured by the federal government must pay for their own abortions. The practical result is that abortion is not a real option for many women. Furthermore, restrictive state laws, a shortage of abortion providers, and violence against existing providers and abortion clinics, among other factors, have resulted in huge gaps in abortion availability. Only 16 percent of US counties have identifiable abortion providers. Outside major metropolitan areas, that figure declines to six percent.

What would happen if Roe were overturned?

Without Roe, there would be no protection for a woman's right to choose. The availability of abortion could revert to pre-Roe status, with abortion available in only three states -- only one of which (New York) is in the contiguous 48 states. Or if a "right to life" interpretation prevailed, all abortions could be outlawed. Many observers believe an outright overturning of Roe is unlikely. Instead, a conservative Court might continue to allow states to enact more and more restrictions, eliminating the right to an abortion based on truly private decision-making.

Note: Some information based on Center for Reproductive Law and Policy report: Privacy Law and the U.S. Supreme Court: Before and After Roe v. Wade; Issued January 7, 1998; Updated June 2000