Q&A: Breaking down Roe v. Wade

By The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB)

Jan. 22 marked the 46th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court case that legalized abortion in the United States. While many fronts have been fought to reverse this decision, which has cost the lives of millions of unborn children, it still remains the law of the land. However, as long as the Church and other pro-life communities continue to rally and stand up for the dignity of the human person, there will always be hope that Roe v. Wade could one day be reversed, therefore giving each child in the womb the protection they intrinsically deserve.

In an effort to help the faithful stay educated on the matter, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops compiled a Q&A outlining the facts and frequently asked questions surrounding Roe v. Wade, reprinted here with permission.

What is Roe v. Wade?

It is the 1973 Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion nationwide. A woman named Norma McCorvey (“Jane Roe”) said she was pregnant from rape and wanted an abortion. She sued a Texas district attorney (Henry Wade) to prevent him from enforcing a Texas law banning abortion except to save the mother’s life. On January 22, 1973, the Court decided this case, and a similar case (Doe v. Bolton) in which a woman named Sandra Cano (“Mary Doe”) was denied an abortion by a hospital review committee and challenged Georgia’s law. The Court struck down both laws, with the effect of striking down similar laws in all the other states as well. Norma McCorvey later admitted having lied about the rape. Horrified at these decisions’ impact, she and Sandra Cano (both now deceased) urged the Supreme Court to reverse the decisions.

What did Roe v. Wade do?

It said the right of privacy (not mentioned in the text of the Constitution) “is broad enough to encompass a woman’s decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy.” The Justices ruled that a state may not restrict abortion at all in the first three months of pregnancy (first trimester). It may establish guidelines only to protect the mother’s health during the next three months (second trimester). After “viability,” when the unborn child could survive if delivered (which the Court placed at 24 to 28 weeks of gestation), the state may prohibit abortion unless it is deemed necessary to preserve the mother’s “life or health.”

So, Roe allows states to prohibit abortion after viability?

Well, no. In the companion case Doe v. Bolton, which the Court said must be read together with Roe, “health” was defined in the abortion context to include “all factors— physical, emotional, psychological, familial, and the woman’s age—relevant to the well-being of the patient.” By this definition, abortion must be allowed in the ninth month if the abortionist says it is needed to serve a woman’s emotional well-being. Though the modern court has yet to confront a challenge to a post-viability ban, Doe suggests that no meaningful limits can be placed on abortion throughout the nine months of pregnancy.

Have courts applied Roe to other issues?

Courts have used Roe to strike down safety regulations protecting women, as well as laws protecting children born alive during abortion attempts. Judges have invoked Roe to argue for a constitutional right to assisted suicide, to nullify federal regulations protecting handicapped newborns from lethal neglect, and to demand legal recognition of same-sex marriage.

Did the court find that life doesn’t begin until birth?

No. It argued that uses of the word “person” in the Constitution do not seem to include the unborn. Then, citing wide disagreement as to when human life begins, the Court said it “need not resolve” this difficult question. Instead of considering the scientific evidence that life begins at conception, or even allowing legislatures to protect those who have never been proven to be anything but human beings, the Court decided to treat unborn children merely as “potential life”—and to prevent the people or their elected representatives from determining otherwise.

Wasn’t the court only continuing a trend toward “liberalizing” abortion laws begun by the people and their elected representatives?

No. In the years leading up to Roe, proposals to weaken laws against abortion were introduced in most states but usually not enacted. Some states did add narrow exceptions to their laws, and a few legalized abortions for any reason, generally up to 20 weeks’ gestation. But then the trend reversed. New York’s legislature voted to restore legal protection to unborn children (a move blocked by the governor’s veto). And in 1972 the people of Michigan and North Dakota overwhelmingly voted to reject proposals to loosen their abortion laws. After studying public opinion against legalized abortion, demographer Judith Blake concluded that a Supreme Court decision striking down state laws would be “the only road to rapid change.” Roe created a national policy more extreme than the law of any state, and it disrupted the democratic process by which the American people had begun to deal with the conflicting claims of the abortion debate.

In more than four decades, haven’t people come to accept the policy of Roe v. Wade?

No. Public opposition to legalized abortion remains strong. The vast majority of Americans oppose the policy of unlimited abortion imposed by Roe, and most believe abortion should not be legal for the reasons it is most often performed. A May 2018 Gallup poll shows that 65% of Americans said abortion should be illegal in the second trimester and 81% said abortion should be illegal in the last trimester. A 2018 Marist poll shows that 51% of women said abortion should never be permitted (9%) or permitted only in cases of rape, incest, and to save the woman’s life (42%).

Do all legal experts approve of Roe?

No. Roe has been criticized by several Supreme Court justices and even by legal experts who favor legalized abortion. Justice Byron White called it “an exercise of raw judicial power.” Yale law professor John Hart Ely has said that Roe is “a very bad decision …. It is bad because it is bad constitutional law, or rather because it is not constitutional law and gives almost no sense of an obligation to try to be.” Edward Lazarus, former clerk to Justice Harry Blackmun who wrote the Roe opinion, says that “Roe, as constitutional interpretation, is virtually impossible to defend.”

Has the supreme court spoken more recently about the validity of its decision in Roe?

In 1992, in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the Court abandoned Roe’s trimester framework, but reaffirmed Roe’s holding that no abortion could be banned before viability. Three Justices said they were doing this not so much because the original case was rightly decided, but because it had been the law for a long time and many people had come to rely on the availability of abortion. They said that “a decision to overrule should rest on some special reason over and above the belief that a prior case was wrongly decided.” But if one realizes the decision was wrong, it is doubly wrong to keep imposing it on the country. In his Casey dissent, Chief Justice William Rehnquist noted that in the previous two decades the Court had “overruled in whole or in part 34 of its previous constitutional decisions.” Reversal of Roe is long overdue.

What is Roe’s impact on society?

The legacy of Roe is virtually incalculable. In its wake it has left death and sorrow and turmoil:

  • The deaths of millions whose lives have been destroyed before birth.
  • Many women have been maimed or killed by legal abortion, and abortionists have been protected from legal scrutiny by courts applying Roe.
  • Countless more women have been traumatized so deeply by abortion that they spend years struggling to find peace, healing, and reconciliation and increasingly they are making their stories public to warn other women.
  • Far from emancipating women, Roe has helped create the expectation that women will resort to abortion—to “fit” into college and the workforce, and to free men from unwanted parental responsibility. It has blocked progress toward a society that welcomes women with their children.
  • Men who grieve because they could not “choose” to protect a child they helped bring into existence.
  • Problems that some claimed Roe would alleviate— “unwanted” children, child abuse and abandonment, etc. —have worsened.
  • A society increasingly coarsened by toleration and acceptance of acts that purposely destroy human life.
What would happen if Roe were reversed?

Abortion would not automatically become illegal. Rather, the people and their elected representatives would be allowed to begin enacting abortion policies that respect the lives of both women and their unborn children. The move away from the Court’s policy of virtually unlimited abortion would likely be gradual, leading to improvements in cultural attitudes toward women and children and in concrete support for women facing unplanned pregnancies.

Would this mean a return to dangerous illegal abortions?

No. Claims that thousands of women were dying from illegal abortions at the time of Roe were fabricated for political purposes, as a chief strategist later admitted. Research confirms that the actual number of maternal deaths resulting from abortion in the 25 years prior to 1973 averaged 250 a year, with a high of 388 in 1948. In 1966, before the first state legalized abortion, 120 mothers died from abortion. While any death is a tragedy, by 1972, when abortion was still illegal in 80 percent of the country, the number dropped to 39 maternal deaths from abortion. Furthermore, a groundbreaking 2012 study of abortion in Chile published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal found that Chile’s abortion prohibition in 1989 did not cause an increase in the maternal mortality rate (MMR). On the contrary, after abortion was prohibited, the MMR decreased by 69.2% in the following 14 years.

Why are abortion advocates so strongly committed to retaining Roe?

Roe v. Wade is increasingly recognized as bad law, bad medicine, and bad social policy. Most Americans object to an unlimited right to abortion. Therefore, such a policy can be kept in place only by extraordinary measures—by insisting that Roe is untouchable, regardless of the evidence. Abortion advocates know that any return of this issue to the democratic process would produce a very different policy from what the Court created. But false judicial doctrines do not have a right to live. Human beings do.

Copyright © 2018, USCCB, Washington, DC. All rights reserved. Updated July 2018

COMING UP: Colorado Catholic Conference 2021 Legislative Recap

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On June 8, the First Regular Session of the 73rd General Assembly adjourned. Over 600 bills were introduced this session. Policy primarily focused on transportation, agriculture, healthcare, fiscal policy, and the state budget. However, the legislature also considered and passed many bills that could impact the Catholic Church in Colorado.  

Some bills that were passed will uphold Catholic social teaching and protect the poor and vulnerable of our society while others pose potentially harmful consequences to the Catholic Church, its affiliated organizations, and Colorado citizens who wish to practice their well-founded convictions. There were also many bills that were considered by the legislature that did not pass, including two bills that would have upheld the sanctity of life and two that would have expanded education opportunity for K-12 students.  

The Colorado Catholic Conference (CCC), as the united voice of the four Colorado bishops, advocated for Catholic values at the Capitol and ensured that the Church’s voice was heard in the shaping of policy.  

Below is a recap of the CCC’s 19 priority bills from the 2021 legislative session. For a full list of the legislation the Conference worked on, please visit: https://www.cocatholicconference.org/2021-legislative-bills-analysis/  

For regular updates and other information, please sign-up for the CCC legislative network here.  

Six bills the CCC supported that were either passed or enacted

Note: Passed means the bill was approved by both chambers of the legislature and is pending the governor’s signature as of June 9, 2021. Enacted means the bill was signed by the governor and became law.  

HB 21-1011 Multilingual Ballot Access for Voters – Passed  
If enacted, counties where either 2,000 adults or 2.5% of the adult population primarily speak a language other than English will be required to provide a ballot in that language. 

HB 21-1075 Replace The Term Illegal Alien – Enacted 
With the enactment of HB 1075, the term “illegal alien” was replaced with the term “worker without authorization” as it relates to public contracts for services.  

SB 21-027 Emergency Supplies for Colorado Babies and Families – Passed  
If enacted, the state government will allocate much-needed funding for nonprofit organizations to provide diapers and other childcare necessities to families in need, including Catholic Charities.  

SB 21-077 Remove Lawful Presence Verification Credentialing – Enacted    
With the enactment of SB 77, verification of lawful presence will no longer be required for any applicant for a license, certificate, or registration, particularly in the job fields of education and childcare.  

SB 21-146 Improve Prison Release Outcomes – Passed  
If enacted, SB 146 will establish practices that ease the transition back into society for formerly incarcerated persons.  

SB 21-158 Increase Medical Providers for Senior Citizens – Passed  
If enacted, SB 158 will allocate more funding for senior citizen care, which is currently understaffed and underfunded.  

Eight bills the CCC opposed that were passed 


HB 21-1072 Equal Access Services For Out-of-home Placements – Enacted 
With the enactment of HB 1072, Colorado law now prohibits organizations that receive state funding for placing children with adoptive or foster parents from discriminating on, among other things, the basis of sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, or marital status. This new law will likely to be impacted by the imminent Fulton v. City of Philadelphia U.S. Supreme Court decision. 

HB 21-1108 Gender Identity Expression Anti-Discrimination – Enacted 
With the enactment of HB 1108, “sexual orientation,” “gender identity,” and “gender expression” are now recognized as protected classes in Colorado nondiscrimination code. This may have serious religious liberty implications for individuals and organizations that wish to practice their well-founded convictions on marriage and human sexuality. 

SB21-006 Human Remains Natural Reduction Soil – Enacted 
With the enactment of SB 006, human remains can now be converted to soil using a container that accelerates the process of biological decomposition, also known as “natural reduction.” 

SB 21-009 Reproductive Health Care Program – Passed 
If enacted, SB 009 will create a taxpayer funded state program to increase access to contraceptives.  

SB 21-016 Protecting Preventive Health Care Coverage – Passed 
If enacted, the definition of “family planning services” and “family planning-related services” will not be clearly defined in law and could potentially include abortion. Furthermore, SB 16 removes the requirement that a provider obtain parental consent before providing family planning services to a minor.  

SB 21-025 Family Planning Services for Eligible Individuals– Passed 
If enacted, SB 025 low-income women to be given state-funded contraception, “preventing, delaying, or planning pregnancy” services, which includes cessation services and sterilization services.  

SB 21-142 Health Care Access in Cases of Rape or Incest– Enacted  
The enactment of SB 142 removes the requirement that, if public funds are being used, a physician must perform an abortion at a hospital, and instead allows for abortions to be performed by any “licensed provider.”   

SB21-193 Protection of Pregnant People in Perinatal Period– Passed 
If enacted, SB 193 will eliminate an important protection in Colorado law for a preborn and viable baby when a woman is on life support.  

Five bills the CCC supported that failed  

HB21-1017 Protect Human Life at Conception – Failed 
HB 1017 would have prohibited terminating the life of an unborn child and made it a violation a class 1 felony.  

HB 21-1080 Nonpublic Education and COVID-19 Relief Act – Failed 
HB 1080 would have established a private school and home-based education income tax credit for families who either enroll their child in private school or educate their child at home, thereby expanding education opportunities for families during and after the pandemic.  

HB 21-1183 Induced Termination of Pregnancy State Registrar – Failed 
HB 1183 would have required health-care providers that perform abortions to report specified information concerning the women who obtain the procedure to the state registrar of vital statistics, thereby increasing transparency in the abortion industry.   

HB 21-1191 Prohibit Discrimination COVID-19 Vaccine Status– Failed  
HB 1191 would have prevented individuals from being coerced to take the COVID-19 vaccine by either the state or by employers.  

HB 21-1210 Modifications to Qualified State Tuition Programs – Failed 
HB 1210 would have allowed families to use some of their private 529 savings account funds for private K-12 school tuition for their children, including at Catholic schools.   

One bill the CCC opposed that failed 

SB 21-031 Limits on Governmental Responses to Protests– Failed 
SB 031 would have made it more difficult for law enforcement to protect innocent lives when protests turn violent.  

Two bills the CCC was in an “Amend” position that passed  

SB 21-073 Civil Action Statute of Limitations Sexual Assault – Enacted  
With the enactment of SB 073, the statute of limitations on bringing a civil claim based on sexual misconduct will be removed as of January 1, 2022. Under this law, victims of sexual abuse can pursue a civil cause of action if the statute of limitations has not expired, the abuse happened in Colorado, and the abuse could be considered a felony or Class 1 misdemeanor if it was a criminal case. 

SB 21-088 Child Sexual Abuse Accountability Act– Passed  
If enacted, SB 88 will allow victims of childhood sexual abuse to sue public and private institutions for abuse that occurred between 1960-2022. Victims would have three years to bring a historical claim, starting from January 1, 2022. Claims brought during this window would be capped at $387,000 for public institutions and at $500,000 for private institutions, with the ability of a judge to double the damages depending on how the private institution handled the situation. Despite unanswered constitutional concerns regarding SB 88, the Colorado Catholic dioceses will also continue to offer opportunities for survivors of childhood sexual abuse to receive support in a non-litigious setting.   

While the legislature has adjourned the 2021 legislative session, there is still the possibility that they will reconvene later this year. To stay up-to-date on Colorado legislative issues and their impact on the Catholic Church in Colorado, be sure to sign up for the CCC legislative network HERE.