Taking a Second Look at Roe v. Wade

by Deirdre A. McQuade
February 2, 2006

On January 22, 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down every state abortion law in the country when it issued two infamous decisions in Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton.

In Roe v. Wade, the Court said that states could not prohibit abortion for any reason in the first trimester of pregnancy; in the second trimester, they could regulate abortion "in ways...reasonably related to maternal health"; and in the third trimester (after "viability"), abortion had to be available if needed to preserve the "life or health of the mother."

Roe created the health exception, but did not define it. In its companion decision, Doe v. Bolton, the Court defined "health" as including "all factors – physical, emotional, psychological, familial, and the woman's age – relevant to the well-being of the patient." In light of this extremely broad definition, abortion suddenly became legal throughout the nine months of pregnancy for virtually any reason.

The trimester-based legal framework was later reworked by the Court, but the "health" exception remains in effect, and so abortion on demand remains the law of the land.

Yet many people believe that abortion is legal in only the first three months of pregnancy. This stems partly from the way the media have reported on Roe v. Wade. The morning of January 23, 1973, the New York Times headline read: "High Court Rules Abortions Legal the First 3 Months." Three decades later, polls and articles are still using the same misleading language. No wonder people are confused.

Misunderstandings pervade the public discussion of abortion. Many believe that the abortion rate in the U.S. is relatively low, when it's actually the highest of all developed countries in the world. Others believe that rape and incest are statistically significant reasons for abortion, but less than 1.5% of women seeking abortions cite those reasons. Still others assume there is widespread support for abortion among American women, but a pro-abortion group's own survey revealed that only 30 percent think abortion should be generally available.

In an effort to dispel these myths, the Catholic bishops have launched a major advertising campaign that includes radio, transit and newspaper ads. The Second Look Project is now in full swing in the nation's Capitol and recently ran in San Francisco as well. All ads lead readers and listeners back to a top-notch website (www.SecondLook.org), where they can find more information and helpful resources.

One transit ad reads:

Myth: Everyone agrees Roe v. Wade is good constitutional law.

Fact: Even pro-choice legal scholars admit its reasoning is suspect.

Edward Lazarus, former clerk to the justice who authored Roe, has said that Roe "borders on the indefensible ... [It is] one of the most intellectually suspect constitutional decisions of the modern era."

Roe v. Wade has had an immeasurably tragic impact on our society. If even pro-abortion commentators are willing to take a second look at Roe, it is time to address all the myths and replace them with the life-giving truth.

Deirdre A. McQuade is the Director of Planning and Information with the USCCB Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities.