Pro-life activists in the United States are successfully chipping away at a woman’s freedom to have an abortionby Jessica Abrahams / June 18, 2015 / Leave a comment
Published in July 2015 issue of Prospect Magazine
In 1969, a 21-year-old Texan woman named Norma McCorvey fell pregnant for the third time. McCorvey had led a deeply sad life, repeatedly the victim of domestic and sexual violence. She had her first child at the age of 18, the result of an abusive relationship, but soon lost custody of the child. A year later she became pregnant again and gave the child up for adoption. This third time she was determined not to see the pregnancy through. But in 1969 Texas still banned abortions, except in cases where the mother’s life was at risk.
McCorvey turned to two lawyers, Linda Coffee and Sarah Weddington, for help. They took her case to court on the grounds that the Texan ban breached the 14th amendment of the United States constitution, which protects citizens’ right to privacy against state action. It became one of the most famous Supreme Court cases in history: Roe v Wade.
Although McCorvey—known as Jane Roe in court documents—gave birth to her child before the case concluded, the court did eventually rule in her favour, establishing a woman’s qualified right to terminate her pregnancy before “foetal viability”—the point at which an unborn child can survive outside the womb. The court accepted medical evidence that this occurs around the beginning of the third trimester (although this has been thrown into doubt by more recent cases) but left it to doctors to decide on a case-by-case basis, resulting in some of the most liberal abortion laws in the west. In England, Scotland and Wales the limit for elective abortions is 24 weeks but most European countries have much lower limits and some, including Northern Ireland, retain near-total bans.
This controversial 1973 ruling has been repeatedly challenged. Many US states attempt to circumvent it by raising barriers to abortion such as mandatory waiting periods, prohibiting some methods and introducing tough licensing requirements for clinics. This is the legacy of a tactic deployed by anti-abortion activists known as “incrementalism”—described in detail by Mary Ziegler in her comprehensive new book, After Roe: The Lost History of the Abortion Debate. With a ban on terminations apparently out of reach following Roe, incrementalists hoped that by chipping away at the judgement with restriction after restriction, it would eventually collapse in on itself.