What is Roe v Wade? Summary of Supreme Court abortion ruling, will law be overturned - decision leak explained

The historic case sets a precedent for US abortion laws, but Supreme Court justices may reverse it

The chief justice of the United States Supreme Court has verified that a leaked document claiming that an hisotric judgement paving the way for the legal right to abortion could be repealed is authentic.

Justice Samuel Alito argues in the 98-page draft “opinion” that the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, which legalised abortion across the United States, is "egregiously wrong."

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Chief Justice Roberts has said the draft does not represent the court's final decision, but if the Supreme Court of the United States upholds the verdict, abortion will be outlawed in 22 states across the country.

But what exactly is Roe v. Wade, and how has it affected abortion legislation over the last half a century?

Here is everything you need to know about it.

What is Roe v. Wade?

Roe v. Wade is a historic 1973 Supreme Court decision in which the Court ruled that a pregnant woman's right to choose whether or not to have an abortion is protected by the Constitution of the United States.

Simply put, many federal and state abortion laws banning the practice in the United States were reversed as a result of the judgement, making abortion legal in many circumstances.

Roe sparked a national debate in the United States regarding whether or to what extent abortion should be allowed, who should decide on its legality, and what role moral and religious beliefs should have in politics.

Who are ‘Roe’ and ‘Wade’?

Pro-choice demonstrators wave signs in front of the US Supreme Court in 2005 (Photo: KAREN BLEIER/AFP via Getty Images)

The case involved Norma McCorvey - who used the legal alias "Jane Roe" - who fell pregnant with her third child in 1969.

McCorvey wanted an abortion but resided in Texas, where it was illegal to do so unless it was absolutely essential to save the mother's life.

Her attorneys filed a case in federal court on her behalf against Henry Wade, her local district attorney, saying that Texas' abortion restrictions were illegal.

The case was considered by a three-judge panel of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas, which found in her favour.

The state of Texas then took its case to the Supreme Court.

The Court ruled in McCorvey's favour, finding that a clause of the 14th Amendment of the United States Constitution protects a pregnant woman's freedom to choose whether or not to have an abortion.

Did it make abortion legal?

Roe v. Wade removed many legal restirctions on a person’s right to choose whether to have an abortion, but it didn’t completely legalise the practice.

The Court’s ruling stated that the right to an abortion is not absolute and must be weighed against the governments interests in preserving foetal life and the health of women - the ruling affected the laws of 46 US states.

The Court connected state control of abortion to the three trimesters of pregnancy.

A person holds up a sign reading ‘Keep your Laws off my Body’ as pro-choice activists gather outside the US Courthouse to defend abortion rights in downtown LA on 3 May 2022 (Photo: FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images)

Governments could not prohibit abortions during the first trimester; any law prohibiting abortions during the first trimester would be deemed unconstitutional.

During the second trimester, governments could impose “reasonable” health regulations only to protect the health of the mother.

And during the third trimester, abortions could be outright prohibited, with exceptions for cases where they were necessary to save the mother's life or health.

In a similar ruling in 1992, the Supreme Court again said a woman's right to choose whether or not to have an abortion is constitutionally protected, but abandoned Roe's trimester framework.

Instead, “foetal viablitiy” was to be considered: the Supreme Court ruled that states could not impose an "undue burden" on women seeking abortions before a foetus could survive outside the womb - around 24 weeks.

Could Roe v. Wade be overturned?

If adopted by a majority of the court, Judge Alito’s opinion would overturn the right to abortion in the United States.

It could lead to individual states outlawing the surgery or imposing stricter limitations.

The alleged threat to Roe v Wade comes at a time when reproductive rights are under attack in Republican-leaning states across the United States; several Republican-led states have already passed highly restrictive abortion laws.

In a statement, President Joe Biden said “a woman’s right to choose is fundamental” and that his administration is preparing for all outcomes for when the court ultimately rules.

He said: “If the court does overturn Roe, it will fall on our nation’s elected officials at all levels of government to protect a woman’s right to choose.

Speaking to reporters before boarding Air Force One, President Biden said: “It concerns me a great deal that we’re going to, after 50 years, decide a woman does not have a right to choose.”

Meanwhile, Republican senator Tom Cotton condemned the leak but applauded the vote.

He said: “The Supreme Court must get to the bottom of this leak immediately using every investigative tool necessary.

“In the meantime, Roe was egregiously wrong from the beginning and I pray the Court follows the Constitution & allows the states to once again protect unborn life.”