What you should know about the 3 cases that shaped U.S. abortion law

abortion, abortion rates, Roe v. Wade

Roe v. WadeDoe v. Bolton, and Planned Parenthood v. Casey have shaped the abortion laws in the United States for decades. While polls claim that a majority of Americans do not want to see Roe overturned, the numbers also show that a minority of Americans understand what this trio of Supreme Court decisions actually required.

The Hill recently reported: “A 2013 Pew Research Center study found that 57 percent of polled adults aged 18 to 29 did not know that the 1973 case dealt with abortion.” And, Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster, believes it is accurate that Millennials have no idea where in history to place the abortion decisions, with some supposing Roe came after the War of 1776.

So, in layman’s terms, what did RoeDoe, and Casey do to American abortion law?

Roe v. Wade – 1973

Roe is the most well-known of the decisions, even though it came down from the Supreme Court on the same day as Doe: January 22, 1973. Roe came out of Texas, where attorney Sarah Weddington argued that the state’s abortion laws were unconstitutional, though she never explained exactly how they were unconstitutional. She asserted (and the Court agreed) that a woman should have the right to control her own life through ending the life of her preborn child. The Court decided that a child who is unborn is not a constitutional person, even though corporations had been considered constitutional persons for over 100 years.

What did Roe do?

  • Roe v. Wade created a “trimester” framework for state abortion laws, where states could place some regulations on it in the third trimester and very few in the second. Roe required that states leave the first trimester entirely alone, forbidding them from doing anything to protect children at this stage of life.
  • Roe so far erased the abortion restrictions of states around the nation that it suddenly became legal at all ages of the child. Roe immediately legalized abortion until the day of birth.
  • The Supreme Court wrote its decision in such a way that its ruling did not only apply to Texas, but also to the entire nation. At that point, only a very small handful of states permitted abortion — even in limited circumstances. But after Roe, abortion was forced on all 50 states.

READ: What you might not know about Jane Roe of Roe v. Wade

Doe v. Bolton – 1973

Doe is rarely spoken of, but it is the case that required abortion to be “on demand” throughout the United States. Instead of abortion being legal only for rare circumstances, Doe — which came out of Georgia — opened the door wide to it for literally any reason.

What did Doe do?

  • While the Court began by saying that abortion would now be legal for reasons of the mother’s “health,” it then defined health in an extremely broad and unpredictable way:

    We agree with the District Court… that the medical judgment may be exercised in the light of all factors – physical, emotional, psychological, familial, and the woman’s age – relevant to the well-being of the patient. All these factors may relate to health.

  • When Roe and Doe are combined, abortion is legal in all 50 states, at all ages of the child, for any reason whatsoever. Physical, emotional, psychological, familial, and age factors really do cover the entire spectrum of reasons and created what is known as “abortion on demand.”
abortion, pregnancy

8 weeks gestation (Photo credit: Lunar Caustic)

Planned Parenthood v. Casey – 1992

Casey changed the trimester framework of Roe. The Court discussed “viability” instead. “Viability” is the point in time at which a child could survive outside the womb. Still, the abortion industry continues to argue that it should be allowed to abort without state interest even after viability — and a number of facilities do exactly that. Abortion remains legal in many states throughout all 40 weeks, for any reason.

What did Casey do?

  • Casey acknowledged that viability might move as modern science advanced — and this has indeed happened, with babies surviving as young as 21 weeks.
  • The Court in Casey also ruled that a state regulation on abortion in any trimester could not impose “an undue burden” on a woman. So, while Casey allowed states to regulate some aspects of abortion even in the first trimester (contrary to Roe), it created a difficult standard states were required to abide by. The “undue burden” standard is both widely and differently interpreted, and it has created mass confusion regarding what limits states will be allowed to enact.

READ: FACT CHECK: Yes, Planned Parenthood does commit abortions after viability across the U.S.


In conclusion, thanks to RoeDoe, and Casey, abortion remains legal and on demand all the way up to birth in many states around the nation. This is contrary to the views of the majority of Americans who believe that it should either be illegal or highly restricted.

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