As the sexual revolution took hold in the second half of the
20th century, women faced great difficulty getting abortions. At
the time, many states had outlawed abortion except in cases where the
mother’s life was in danger. Illegal abortions were often dangerous
because they were performed in unsanitary conditions. As people’s ideas
about sexual freedom changed, women gained greater access to birth
control measures, but public pressure to change abortion laws also
increased. A number of states relaxed their abortion laws so that women
living in states that outlawed abortion could travel to another state
for an abortion.
However, poor women often could not afford to travel outside their
state to receive treatment, raising questions of equality. Laws were
often vague, so that doctors did not know whether they were breaking the
law by providing an abortion. In addition, some people began to
question whether the government should be able to interfere with
people’s decisions in sexual matters. They believed that laws banning
birth control and abortion were an invasion of privacy.
There is no right to privacy specifically guaranteed in the
Constitution. However, the Supreme Court has long acknowledged some
right to privacy, but usually associated that right with a particular
location, like a person’s home. However, during the 1960s, the Court’s
position on privacy changed so that it was connected with a person, not a
In the case of Griswold v. Connecticut (1965), the
Supreme Court ruled that a Connecticut law outlawing access to
contraception violated the U.S. Constitution because it invaded the
privacy of married couples to make decisions about their families. In
that ruling, the Court identified privacy as a fundamental value for the
American way of life, and for the other basic rights outlined in the
Bill of Rights.
Jane Roe (not her real name) was an unmarried and pregnant Texas
resident in 1970. She wanted to have an abortion, but Texas abortion
law made it a felony to abort a fetus unless “on medical advice for the
purpose of saving the life of the mother.” Roe filed suit against Wade,
the district attorney of Dallas County, Texas to challenge the law
Roe said that the law violated the 14th Amendment, which
provides equal protection of the laws and a guarantee of personal
liberty, and a woman’s right to privacy implicitly guaranteed in the
First, Fourth, Fifth, Ninth, and 14th Amendments. The state
argued that “the right to life of the unborn child is superior to the
right to privacy of the mother.” The state also argued that in previous
decisions where the Court protected individual or marital privacy, that
right was not absolute. The state argued that this is a policy matter
best left to the legislature to decide. A three-judge federal district
court ruled the Texas abortion law unconstitutional, and the case was
then appealed directly to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Questions to Consider
What was the Texas law at issue in this case?
Do you think a right to privacy includes 1) a right to be
private in a place 2) a right to establish a certain relationship with a
married partner, 3) and/or a right to privacy in most, if not all, of
your personal decisions? Explain your answer.
What did the Court state about the right to privacy in Griswold?
Do you believe that privacy is a fundamental value, necessary
to secure the other rights in the Bill of Rights? Why or why not?