What is the Roe v Wade case, how did it affect US abortion rights and how are laws different in the UK?

The US Supreme Court has overturned the Roe V Wade decision that legalised abortion nationwide, meaning millions of women in the country will lose the legal right to terminate pregnancies.

The decision was the culmination of decades of efforts by abortion opponents, made possible by an emboldened right side of the court, fortified by three appointees of Donald Trump.

The ruling comes more than a month after the leak of a draft opinion by Justice Samuel Alito that indicated the court might be poised to take the momentous step, putting the courts at odds with the majority of the American public, who are in favour of Roe.

But what was the Roe v Wade case, and how does it impact abortion rights in the US?

What was the ruling?

Plaintiff Jane Roe, later identified as Norma McCorvey, became pregnant with her third child in 1969 in Texas and sought to terminate the pregnancy.

Under state law at the time, it was illegal to get an abortion in the state unless it was to save the life of a mother.

After attempting unsuccessfully to get an illegal abortion, Ms McCorvey made contact with Texas attorneys Linda Coffee and Sarah Weddington.

In 1970, they filed a lawsuit on behalf of Ms McCorvey as well as other women “who were or might become pregnant and want to consider all options”.

It was filed against Henry Wade, the district attorney of Dallas County, where Ms McCorvey lived. He had previously prosecuted Jack Ruby, who killed President John F Kennedy’s murderer Lee Harvey Oswald.

Ms McCorvey’s lawyers said she was unable to travel out of the state to obtain an abortion and argued that the law was too vague and infringed on her constitutional rights.

what is the roe v wade case, how did it affect us abortion rights and how are laws different in the uk?
© Provided by Evening Standard Members of the Supreme Court pose for a group photo at the Supreme Court in Washington (AP)

The case was eventually referred to the US Supreme Court.

On January 22, 1973, the Court struck against the Texas law in a 7-2 decision – effectively legalising abortion nationwide.

“This right of privacy…is broad enough to encompass a woman’s decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy,” the Supreme Court lawyers wrote.

“The detriment that the State would impose upon the pregnant woman by denying this choice altogether is apparent.”

They added: “Specific and direct harm medically diagnosable even in early pregnancy may be involved. Maternity, or additional offspring, may force upon the woman a distressful life and future. Psychological harm may be imminent.”

Five Republican-nominated judges were among the majority. The court ruled the state could regulate the procedure during the second trimester and even ban it in most circumstances in the third.

What are the current abortion laws in the US?

Abortion in the United States is subject to individual state regulations on abortion. In 1973, Roe v. Wade made the first abortion case to be taken to the Supreme Court, which had made it federally legal.

This was overturned in 2022, which meant that abortion laws are once again subject to regulations based on state laws.

Individual states can regulate and limit the use of abortion, some of which already have through ‘trigger laws’ which made abortion illegal within the first and second trimesters.

A number of states already have the ‘trigger ban’ in place so that abortion is now immediately outlawed.

Arkansas will now ban abortions completely, while Kentucky, Louisana and South Carolina have pledged to ban terminations six weeks into a pregnancy.

what is the roe v wade case, how did it affect us abortion rights and how are laws different in the uk?
© Provided by Evening Standard Protesters outside the Supreme Court (AP)

Why is the Mississippi case important?

In December, the Supreme Court heard arguments on a Mississippi law that was a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade.

The US Supreme Court had been considering a case called Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organisation.

It challenged a law passed in the state in 2018 which banned abortion after 15 weeks.

The Mississippi law makes most abortions illegal after 15 weeks of pregnancy. Most experts estimate fetal viability to be about 24 weeks.

It bans abortions if “the probably gestational age of the unborn human” is determined to be more than 15 weeks, with exceptions for medical emergencies or “severe fetal abnormality”.

What is Justice Samuel Alito’s document?

The landmark ruling comes more than a month after a leak of a draft opinion by Justice Samuel Alito indicating the court was prepared to take the momentous step.

Justice Samuel Alito wrote in the draft opinion document that Roe was “egregiously wrong from the start”.

“It is time to heed the constitution and return the issue of abortion to the people’s elected representatives,” he said.

Alito, in the final opinion issued Friday, wrote Roe and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the 1992 decision that reaffirmed the right to abortion, were wrong the day they were decided and must be overturned.

“We hold that Roe and Casey must be overruled. The Constitution makes no reference to abortion, and no such right is implicitly protected by any constitutional provision,” Alito wrote.

How does UK law differ to the US?

Abortions can take place in the first 24 weeks of pregnancy in England, Scotland and Wales.

However, they have to be approved by two doctors.

They must agree having the baby would pose a greater risk to the physical or mental health of the woman than a termination.

It is allowed after this time period if there is a risk to the life of the woman, evidence of severe foetal abnormality or risk of grave physical and mental injury to the woman.

However, in Northern Ireland abortion can only be obtained if the woman’s life is at risk and in some cases of foetal abnormality.

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