During the past 35 years, federal courts, particularly the U.S. Supreme Court, have superseded states as the driving force in crafting abortion policy. Indeed, since the high court’s 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade, which granted women the constitutional right to terminate their pregnancies, state legislatures and governors have encountered a number of limitations in the ways they can regulate abortion.
Prior to Roe, and throughout much of American history, states banned or severely restricted abortion. State abortion laws, many of which were enacted in the 19th and early 20th centuries, often targeted those who performed abortions rather than the pregnant women who sought to have the procedure performed. The aim of many of these laws was to protect pregnant women (and their fetuses) from injury, not to prosecute them.
Despite the near-universal prohibition on abortion in the early 20th century, social forces in the decades that followed – such as the fight for women’s suffrage and later the feminist movement – pushed the country toward greater political and sexual freedom for women. In 1967, Colorado became the first state to greatly broaden the circumstances under which a woman could legally receive an abortion. By 1970, 11 additional states had made similar changes to their abortion laws and four other states – New York, Washington, Hawaii and Alaska – had completely decriminalized abortion during the early stages of pregnancy.
Meanwhile, abortion rights advocates launched a series of court challenges to many older state abortion laws, often arguing that these statutes were overly vague or that they violated the right to privacy or the right to equal protection under the law guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution. State and lower federal courts usually rejected these arguments.
Read the full report A History of Key Abortion Rulings of the U.S. Supreme Court on the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life Web site.