Abortion and its recent legal battles

Abortion web guide
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Dec 8, 2019

The Story

Abortion is one of the most divisive political issues in the US.

How’d we get here?

In 1973, the Supreme Court ruled in the landmark Roe v Wade decision that women have a constitutional right to an abortion. Before that, abortion was mostly illegal, although women still got them.


Not easily. It was often dangerous, expensive, and required women to travel far. In some cases, women tried to induce an abortion on themselves, by using coat hangers, throwing themselves down the stairs, or consuming poison. At least one physician operated undercover – and ended up getting arrested. It was possible, but difficult, to get an abortion safely: a 1966 story in The Washington Post quoted a doctor saying a woman could usually have a safe abortion in a hospital if pyschiatrists attested that the patient was suicidal.

Wow. So how did Roe v Wade come about?

In 1969, a Texas woman named Norma McCorvey (known as Jane Roe in later court documents) became pregnant and wanted an abortion. But Texas law only allowed abortion if the mother’s life was at risk. So McCorvey sued the Dallas County district attorney, Henry Wade. The case made it all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled 7-2 that the constitutional right to privacy protects a woman’s right to an abortion. 

What happened next?

The ruling left a lot of the specifics up to the states, which have since passed laws that outline very different ways of handling abortion. Like requiring a minor to get a parent to sign off, requiring patients to get an ultrasound before having an abortion, or banning late-term (after about 24 weeks) abortions.

How common are abortions?

Not as common as they used to be. Research by a group that supports legal abortions shows that the abortion rate has been going down for decades. In 1980, there were 29.3 abortions for every 1,000 women ages 15-44. In 2017, that number fell to about 13.5. There are different theories about why this is happening – like increased access to contraception, fewer people getting pregnant to begin with, and infertility.

So why has it become such a bigger issue lately?

Because there’s an escalating push to get the Supreme Court to revisit the issue. Since President Trump took office, he’s overhauled the nation’s courts by appointing dozens of conservative judges, including two to the highest court there is: the Supreme Court. That’s led to a push by red states to pass restrictive abortion laws that lawmakers know will be challenged in court. The goal: bring this fight to the Supremes at a time when the court has a conservative majority, and may be more likely to overturn Roe v Wade.

Where do things stand?

We get into the state of restrictive abortion bills, how the Supreme Court is handling the issue, and how it’s impacting the 2020 election in theSkimm app. Every week, the app goes deep on a different news topic to give you the context you need to understand what's going on in the world. Download the app now and you get the first week free.

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