7 Game-Changing Supreme Court Abortion Rulings That Altered The Course Of History & Could Be Joined By Texas' HB2 Case

The Supreme Court will be undertaking the first major abortion case it's had in almost 10 years, it announced Friday. According to Vox, the case involves challenging a Texas law that sets regulations on clinics, rules of which have been called unnecessarily complicated and have resulted in about half of the state's clinics closing since 2013. Texas' House Bill 2 nearly requires abortion clinics to become "mini-emergency rooms," which can function as ambulatory surgical centers with hospital admitting privileges, in order to remain open. The reforms that the bill requires from clinics would cost more than $1 million, according to abortion providers, which also point out that these costs are meant to minimize complications that are already extremely low-risk.

In recent years, tricky red-tape regulations have been used to close many clinics in states across the country, and this case could result in a historically important Supreme Court ruling.

Historically, abortions were outlawed due to religious ideologies asserting that life began at conception. These interpretations of the Bible reflected the values and limited scientific knowledge of society generations ago, but restrictions against abortions hardly prevented them. Instead, unsafe back-alley abortions, often sought by impoverished immigrant women with no other options, often resulted in death. The landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling legalized abortions for women across the nation, but has hardly put an end to the political conflict about a woman's right to bodily autonomy. More than 40 years later, politicians and everyday Americans often still divide themselves neatly as either pro-choice or pro-life.


However, since Roe v. Wade, the dialogue has never been as simple as whether women should be allowed to legally obtain abortions. The debate has since come to involve the affordability of abortions, when a woman can legally obtain one, the accessibility of clinics, and age restrictions. Ultimately, through every important abortion case the Supreme Court has ruled on, the overarching debate remains whether women of all socioeconomic backgrounds should be entitled to make basic decisions about their bodies, or be restricted based on politicians' personal ideologies. Here are some of these past cases.

1. Roe v. Wade (1973)


According to the Pew Research Center, In January 1973, the high court's ruling on Roe v. Wade "granted women the constitutional right to terminate their pregnancies." Prior to the ruling, many states either banned or, at the very least, severely restricted access to abortion. As such, state abortion laws from the 19th and 20th century "often targeted those who performed abortions" instead of pregnant women seeking them.

PBS reports that Graduate students of the University of Texas Law School, Linda Coffee and Sarah Weddington, sued Henry Wade, the Dallas Country District Attorney, on behalf of Norma L. McCorvey, known as "Jane Roe," a pregnant woman. They claimed that a Texas law criminalizing all abortions except those endangering a pregnant woman's life violated Roe's constitutional rights. Roe claimed that she had the right to terminate her pregnancy in a safe medical environment. The Texas court eventually ruled that the law violated the Constitution, but Wade appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which proceeded to review the case through 1971 and 1972.

Also according to PBS, in 1973, the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 that the Texas statute violated Roe's constitutional right to privacy, referencing the Constitution's First, Fourth, Ninth, and 14th Amendments on individuals' "zones of privacy." The decision also cited past cases ruling that "marriage, contraception, and child rearing" were "zones of privacy." Justice Blackmun's decision also set standards for when and how medically safe abortions could be carried out, from the first trimester to the "point of fetal viability," or the point at which a fetus can survive outside the womb, typically between about 24 and 28 weeks into a pregnancy, according to Pew Research Center. In this case, the state is allowed to regulate abortions to protect the mother.

2. Planned Parenthood v. Danforth (1976)

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In 1976, Planned Parenthood challenged Missouri Attorney General John Danforth and a statute requiring women to receive their husbands' consent in order to obtain an abortion. The court struck down provisions of the statute requiring spousal and parental consent to obtain abortions, but upheld the statute's record-keeping requirement for facilities and doctors performing abortions.

Today, controversy continues to surround whether minors should be able to obtain abortions without the approval of their parents. In some states, the parental consent requirement remains legal, despite a later Supreme Court ruling (Hodgson v. Minnesota) allowing minors a "judicial bypass."

3. Harris v. McRae (1980)


In September 1976, Congress prohibited use of federal funds toward the costs of abortions through the Medicaid program, with the exception of cases in which a mother's life is endangered, or of rape or incest. In the case of Harris v. McRae, the conservative court upheld these restrictions, together known as the Hyde Amendment. Justice Potter Stewart wrote the decision, stating that a woman's right to choose does not equate "a constitutional entitlement to the financial resources to avail herself of the full range of protected choices."

The Harris decision remains highly relevant following right-wing attempts to defund Planned Parenthood. The women's health organization provides a wide range of health services to poor men and women, but remains controversial to conservatives for providing abortions. Like the Harris decision, opposition to Planned Parenthood undermined the ability of poor women to make basic decisions about their health.

4. Webster v. Reproductive Health Services (1989)

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According to the Pew Research Center, in 1989, a notably more conservative court looked at a Missouri statute prohibiting public facilities from performing abortions, and public health workers from performing abortions unless the life of the mother was at risk. Most importantly, the statute defined life as beginning at conception, and required fetal viability tests for women who were more than 20 weeks along and seeking abortions. In a 5-4 decision, the court ruled in favor of the statute.

Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote that the statute's assertion that life began at conception didn't contradict the Roe v. Wade decision, and that while Roe protected the right of women to obtain abortions, it didn't explicitly give public health workers the right to perform them. Fetal viability tests and 20-week regulations continue to serve as barriers to farther-along women seeking abortions.

5. Hodgson v. Minnesota (1990)

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In 1990, Dr. Jane Hodgson, a pro-choice activist and gynecologist, challenged a Minnesota state law that required minors to notify both of their biological parents before obtaining an abortion. The law made no exception even for daughters who did not know their biological parents. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor believed the two-parent requirement put pregnant teenagers at risk, and pointed out that the federal rule failed to meet a rationality standard.

The decision granted "judicial bypass," which can be obtained at local courthouses, for teenagers unable to comply with the parental notification law to legally obtain abortions. The Hodgson ruling remains relevant, as parental consent requirements remain hotly debated across different states. In the state of Texas, the state's Supreme Court will be analyzing input from the state's Supreme Court Advisory Committee on House Bill 3994, which concerns parental consent requirements for minors seeking abortions, before the Bill takes effect on January 1, 2016.

6. Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992)

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In Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the Supreme Court allowed states to enact different requirements for women seeking abortions, including pre-abortion counseling and waiting periods, which remain controversial requirements in some more conservative-leaning states, like Wisconsin. The ruling also upheld states' rights to require minors to get parental consent in order to obtain abortions. But ultimately, on a positive note for reproductive rights supporters, the Court ruled that these laws could only remain so long as they imposed no "undue burden" on or provided "substantial obstacles" for pregnant women.

7. Gonzalez v. Carhart (2007)

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Gonzalez v. Carhart upheld the constitutionality of the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act, signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2003. The act prohibited late-term abortion procedures that involved methods like as "intact dilation and extraction," according to the Pew Research Center. Because the act made no exception for the health of the woman, U.S. Attorney General Gonzalez challenged its constitutionality, arguing that it violated "personal liberty protected by the Fifth Amendment."

The Pew Research Center reports that, in a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ultimately upheld the Partial-Birth Act in 2007. The ruling was a significant departure from past rulings, which required similar restrictive abortion laws to provide exceptions based on women's health. The decision was, and remains, hotly challenged. A poll conducted by ABC after the ruling found that 69 percent of Americans disagreed with it, while some critically pointed out that five judges in the majority were Catholic. "Until this opinion, the Court recognized the importance of not interfering with medical judgments made by physicians to protect a patient's interest," the New England Journal of Medicine wrote in response to it. "For the first time, the Court permits congressional judgment to replace medical judgment."