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Roe v. Wade and the Modern Abortion Debate

In recent weeks, Alabama and Georgia have passed laws restricting abortions in their states. They join six other states that have increased restrictions on the practice so far in 2019. These more restrictive laws may result in a challenge to the Supreme Court case of Roe v Wade (1973), once again pushing this landmark case into the spotlight. How well do you know Roe v Wade?

Case Background:

According to common law tradition carried over in the United States from England, abortion before “quickening” (or when the fetus’s movements could be felt) was not a crime. In 1821, Connecticut adopted a portion of Lord Ellenborough’s Act (1803) and passed the first law banning abortion after quickening. Twenty years later, eight states had such laws. At the time of the adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868, 20 states (out of 37) restricted abortion. Generally, abortions after quickening were felonies while those procedures performed before quickening were treated as misdemeanors. Gradually, the legal distinction between pre- and post-quickening abortions began to disappear. By the 1950s, almost every state banned all abortions except when necessary to save the woman’s life. In the late 1960s, however, some states began to relax their laws restricting abortion. This trend coincided with the feminist movement, and the liberalization of laws governing sexuality and privacy. The trend was also mirrored in legal challenges to laws regulating intimate relations. The Supreme Court struck down laws banning the use of birth control by married couples (Griswold v. Connecticut, 1965), and single people (Eisenstadt v. Baird, 1972). Beginning with Colorado in 1967, thirteen states opened access to abortion. Several states restricted the procedure somewhat, while 31 states allowed abortion only to save the life of the mother. Texas was one of those states. A Texas woman, using the pseudonym Jane Roe, challenged the Texas law and her case eventually went to the Supreme Court. Roe claimed that the law robbed her of her right to privacy and her liberty as protected by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Key Question:

Evaluate the Court’s constitutional reasoning in Roe v. Wade.


Read the Essay and Case Background below. Then analyze Documents A-K. Finally, answer the Key Question in a well-organized essay that incorporates your interpretations of Documents A-K, as well as your own knowledge of history.


Handout A: Personal Liberty Essay by Dennis Goldford

Handout B: Roe v. Wade Case Background

Handout C: Documents to Examine (A-K)

Handout D: The Issue Endures Compiled Handouts

To explore the full DBQ lesson, click here. To explore other Supreme Court DBQs from the Bill of Rights Institute, click here.

Extension Activity:

The Bill of Rights Institute’s Think the Vote platform is designed to foster student debate and discussion of current events issues. This week, our question is: do women have a right to privacy concerning abortions? Students with the best answer on each side of the debate will win a $25 Amazon gift card, a BRI t-shirt, and be entered for the chance to win $1,000. The referring teachers for student winners will also receive a $25 gift card, a BRI t-shirt, pocket constitutions for their class, and BRI swag! You can access the Think the Vote question here.