Roe: How Little We Know

by Gail Quinn
March 11, 2005

Late in February, Harris released its latest poll on abortion. The results showed a bare majority of Americans still supporting Roe v. Wade, the U.S. Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion nationwide (52% - 47%). This is a significant drop from the 57% who indicated support for Roe as recently as 1998.

Do 52% of Americans really support legal abortion throughout the nine months of pregnancy? The simple answer is no. They don't. The same poll shows that 72 percent of Americans would ban abortion in the second trimester, and a whopping 86 percent (that's almost 9 out of 10 Americans) would do so in the third trimester.

So why do people indicate support for Roe v. Wade? Again, a simple answer: Most think they know about Roe v. Wade. That's the decision, they say, that legalized abortion in the first three months of pregnancy. It's not surprising that they think this. For more than three decades the media has reported that Roe legalized abortion in the first trimester of pregnancy. On January 23, 1973, the day after the Supreme Court released its abortion decision, the New York Times' headline blared: "High court rules abortions legal the first three months."

That headline--and most to follow for three decades--only told part of the story. Roe v. Wade did legalize abortion in the first three months. It also legalized abortion in the second three months and in the third three months as well.

Roe said abortion could not be restricted for any reason during the first three months of pregnancy. In the second trimester of pregnancy, abortion could be regulated, but only to protect the health of the mother. After viability (between 24 and 28 weeks gestation, the Court said), abortion must be allowed to protect the mother's life and health.

So abortion is, or can be, restricted later in pregnancy? Not really. In Roe's companion case, Doe v. Bolton, which the Supreme Court said must be read with Roe, "health"--only as it relates to abortion--was defined this way: "all factors--physical, emotional, psychological, familial, and the woman's age--relevant to the well-being of the patient."

By definition, abortion has to be legal even in the ninth month of pregnancy, if the abortion doctor invokes any of these reasons for aborting the baby. In 2000 the U.S. Supreme Court said that a ban on partial-birth abortion could not be upheld because it had no "health" exception as demanded by Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton. A reasonable question might be: how could it benefit a mother's health to kill an unborn child in the seventh month of pregnancy rather than complete a live delivery. The Court is not relying on reason; it is relying on Roe.

As long as Roe stands as the law of the land, there can be no meaningful limits on abortion at any time during the entire nine months of pregnancy. Roe v. Wade must be overturned.

Gail Quinn is Executive Director of the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington, D.C.