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Roe v. Wade to Planned Parenthood: The History of Abortion Rights in America (PHOTOS)

The Daily Beast looks back at the evolution of abortion rights in America.

AP Photos

AP Photos

Rep. Todd Akin, a Republican from Missouri, ignited a firestorm when he said “legitimate rape” rarely results in pregnancy during an interview with a local TV station. While Akin’s comments put the issue of abortion front and center in the run-up to 2012 election, this is just the latest dustup in a battle that’s been raging for decades. The Daily Beast takes a look back at what’s happened to abortion rights in America since the days of Roe v. Wade.

Bettmann / Corbis (left); Bill Janscha / AP Photos

1973: Roe v. Wade

The Supreme Court jumped into the abortion debate in 1973 with its landmark decision in Roe v. Wade. The court held that the First, Fourth, Ninth, and Fourteenth Amendments created a “zone of privacy” that prohibited individual states from outlawing abortion, though the 7-2 majority also ruled that states could enact laws to protect the fetus in the third trimester of pregnancy so long as they carved out exceptions to safeguard the life of the mother. The controversial ruling established a woman’s right to have an abortion and set the stage for dozens of legal battles over the next several decades as pro-life and pro-choice forces clashed over where and when the procedure should be legal.


1974: The Vatican Weighs In

In 1974, the Vatican released its “Declaration on Procured Abortion.” The document reaffirmed the Catholic Church’s opposition to abortion, even in cases where the life of the mother may be at risk. “The tradition of the Church has always held that human life must be protected and favored from the beginning, just as at the various stages of its development,” the declaration stated. “It must in any case be clearly understood that whatever may be laid down by civil law in this matter, man can never obey a law which is in itself immoral, and such is the case of a law which would admit in principle the liceity of abortion.” 

Diana Walker, Time & Life Pictures / Getty Images

1976: The Hyde Amendment

Just three years after Roe v. Wade, Congress passed the Hyde Amendment, which prohibited taxpayer money from funding abortions through Medicaid. The amendment made it more difficult for low-income women who depend on government assistance for their health care to obtain abortions, though there were exceptions for rape, incest and the mother’s health. Congress has re-authorized the measure every year since it first passed in 1976.

Jim Mone / AP Photos

1977-1980: Fight Over Public Funding

A series of Supreme Court cases restricted public funding of abortions at the state level.  In 1977, the court ruled 6-3 that the Equal Protection Clause doesn’t oblige the states to use Medicaid funds for abortions even if they are used to pay for expenses related to childbirth. That same year, the justices held that Title XIX of the Social Security Act didn’t require states to pay for nontherapeutic abortions through Medicaid. Three years later, the Supreme Court upheld the Hyde Amendment.  

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1983: Parental Consent and Other Restrictions

By the early 1980s, state legislatures had begun passing laws that made getting an abortion more difficult. Missouri enacted a statute that required abortions taking place after the first trimester be performed in a hospital. It also required a pathology report on the fetus and the presence of a second doctor if the pregnancy had reached viability. Additionally, the law compelled unmarried minors to receive parental consent or a judicial bypass before getting an abortion. In 1983, the Supreme Court struck down the hospitalization requirement on the grounds that it was an unreasonable infringement on a woman’s right to choose. But the court upheld the other provisions, finding that the state has an interest in protecting minors and the lives of viable fetuses.

Susan Steinkamp / Corbis

1989: Public Facilities Challenge

In 1986, Missouri passed another law that further restricted access to abortions. The legislation made it illegal for public employees to perform or assist in abortions that were deemed unnecessary to save the life of the mother. Abortions (and even counseling that encouraged abortion) could not be performed in public facilities. The controversial law landed on the Supreme Court’s docket in 1989 in a case called Webster v. Reproductive Health Services. Though the court reiterated in its decision that it was not reversing Roe v. Wade, it upheld the law by a 5-4 vote on the basis that there was no constitutional requirement for the states to facilitate abortion.

Steven L. Nelson / AP Photos

1991: Rust v. Sullivan

Congress had already prohibited the use of federal funds for abortions through Title X funding that was set aside for family planning initiatives, but in 1988, the Secretary of Health and Human Services under President Reagan took it a step further. The new regulations not only banned federal funds from going to programs that provided abortions, but also to those that simply counseled women that abortion was an option. The directive was challenged in court on the basis that it violated the free-speech clause of the First Amendment. The case, Rust v. Sullivan, made it all the way to the Supreme Court, which in 1991 upheld administration's decision to deny the funds by a 5-4 vote. 

Ralf-Finn Hestoft / Corbis

1992: Planned Parenthood v. Casey

The early 1990s saw several challenges to abortion rights wind their way through the courts. One of the biggest cases to make it to the Supreme Court wasPlanned Parenthood v. Casey.  Pennsylvania added new restrictions that required doctors to review the health risks associated with the procedure with their patients. The state also mandated a 24-hour waiting period, parental consent, and spousal notification. The court again affirmed its Roe decision, but also upheld most of the Pennsylvania law, with the exception of the spousal notification requirement. But perhaps most importantly, the justices created a new standard—which asks whether a law imposes an “undue burden” on a woman seeking an abortion—for adjudicating abortion cases.

Barry Thumma / AP Photos

1993: The Murder of Dr. David Gunn

Dr. David Gunn, one of the few abortion providers in the deep South, was shot three times in the back and killed on Mar. 10, 1993 outside of a women’s health clinic in Pensacola, Fla. His murder is believed to be the first in the country related to the battle over abortion rights.

Pictured: David Gunn, Jr., testifies before Congress on legislation to protect doctors and women from harassment at clinics.

Joel Stettenheim / Corbis

The 1990s: Violence at Clinics

After Gunn’s murder, a wave of violence at abortion clinics erupted across the country. In July 1994, Dr. John Britton and James Barrett, a clinic escort, were shot and killed outside of another clinic in Pensacola. That same year, receptionists Shannon Lowney and Leanne Nichols were killed in clinic attacks in Brookline, Mass. In 1998, Robert Sanderson died when a bomb exploded at a clinic in Birmingham, Ala. Dr. Barnett Slepian was shot to death by an anti-abortion protester in October 1998 at his home in upstate New York.  

Najlah Feanny-Hicks / Saba-Corbis

2000: Stenberg v. Carhart

The Supreme Court again waded into the abortion debate in 2000 with its decision in the Stenberg v. Carhart case. By a narrow 5-4 vote, the justices struck down a Nebraska law that outlawed so called partial-birth abortions because it failed to carve out an exception for women whose health would be endangered by the pregnancy. The court also found that the law placed an "undue burden" on women seeking abortions.   

Jeffrey Haderthauer / AP Photos

2003: Partial Birth Abortion Ban

President George W. Bush signed the partial-birth abortion ban into law on Nov. 5, 2003. The measure, which made it illegal for doctors to use the “intact dilation and extraction” method, was immediately hailed by pro-life groups as a major victory. Pro-choice advocates argued the law got between women and their doctors. This time the law made an exception for cases where the life of the mother would be in danger if she brought the fetus to term. 

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2007: Gonzales v. Carhart

In April 2007, the Supreme Court ruled that the federal partial-birth abortion ban was constitutional in a 5-4 decision. The majority reasoned that the ban could remain in place because the government has a legitimate interest in protecting the unborn and the law would protect women from choosing to have a procedure they might feel guilty about later. The court reversed two federal appeals courts that had ruled the law unconstitutional.  

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2009: The Murder of Dr. George Tiller

Dr. George Tiller was one of the few physicians in the U.S. who was willing to perform late-term abortions. His clinic in Wichita Kan., was frequently bombarded by protesters, and Tiller himself received many death threats throughout his career. Tiller was gunned down on May 31, 2009 as he stood in the vestibule of his church. Scott Roeder, a self-proclaimed opponent of abortion, was arrested and took responsibility for the murder, testifying that he shot the doctor to stop him from performing more abortions.

Alex Brandon / AP Photos

2009: The Stupak-Pitts Amendment

As Democrats raced to pass health care reform in the waning days of 2009, one issue threatened to upend the whole deal: abortion. Rep. Bart Stupak, a Democrat from Michigan, and Joseph Pitts, a Republican from Pennsylvania, offered an amendment that would have prohibited the use of federal funds to purchase insurance that covered elective abortions. The measure passed the House, but stalled in the Senate. President Obama finally broke the stalemate by issuing an executive order that banned the use of public funds for abortion under the new healthcare law. 

Steve Helber / AP Photos

2011: State Abortion Restrictions

Pro-choice groups faced an uphill battle in 2011, as dozens of different laws designed to severely restrict or eliminate access to abortion are either introduced or ratified by state legislatures across the country. According to the Guttmacher Institute (PDF), five states enact bans that prohibit abortions after 20 weeks; three states pass limits on post viability abortions; two states pass partial-birth abortion laws to mirror the strict federal statute; five states begin requiring pre-abortion counseling; and two states require telling women that a fetus is a person. Nine states place limits on abortion coverage in insurance plans offered by health exchanges. Just to name a few.

Chet Brokaw / AP Photos

2011: South Dakota’s Waiting Period

In March 2011, South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard signed into law a bill that required a 72-hour waiting period, the longest in the country. "I hope that women who are considering an abortion will use this three-day period to make good choices,” Daugaard said in a statement at the time. By June, a federal judge had blocked the measure from taking effect.

LM Otero / AP Photos

2011-2012: Several States Enact Sonogram Laws

Between 2011 and 2012 several states added an extra hurdle for women seeking abortions by requiring a sonogram before allowing them to have the procedure. In Texas, the new law required that the woman not only undergo the sonogram, but that the doctor explain what was happening during the sonogram. A firestorm erupted in Virginia as the state legislature contemplated a bill that would force women to have a transvaginal ultrasound before an abortion. Conservative lawmakers eventually backed off and passed a law requiring external abdominal sonogram. Virginia became the eighth state to require ultrasounds, joining Texas, Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Kansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi. 

Sue Ogrocki

2012: Personhood Ballot Initiatives and Bills

The fight over abortion continued to escalate as several states including Mississippi, Oklahoma and Virginia began introducing personhood measures that would define life as beginning at conception. The measures mostly fail, but that doesn't dissuade pro-life organizations from pushing forward with their cause. In June of 2012, Sen. Rand Paul tried to slip a personhood clause into a bill about flood insurance. This followed on the heels of Senate Republicans trying to insert anti-contraception amendments into a transportation bill in February. 

Ross D. Franklin / AP Photos

2012: Arizona’s Abortion Bill

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signed the Women’s Health and Safety Act, which essentially bans abortion after 20 weeks, in April 2012. The law also requires abortion providers have hospital privileges within 30 miles of where the procedure takes place and that public schools include education programs that stress birth and adoption over abortion. On Aug. 1, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals granted a two-month stay, which will keep Arizona from implementing the law for the time being.

2012: Vagina-gate

In June 2012, two female Michigan lawmakers were temporarily banned from speaking on the floor of the legislature because they used the words “vagina” and spoke out of turn in speeches against a bill designed to make it more difficult for women to obtain abortions. Democratic State Rep. Lisa Brown told fellow legislators, “I'm flattered that you are all so interested in my vagina, but no means no." Rep. Barb Byrum, also a Democrat, referenced legislation that would put restrictions on vasectomies, but didn’t wait to be recognized. House Republicans defended the move by saying the women hadn’t shown the enough maturity and civility.

Timothy Clary, AFP / Getty Images

2012: New Regulations for Abortion Providers

Earlier this year, lawmakers in the Volunteer State passed the Life Defense Act of 2012, which requires anyone providing abortions to be affiliated with a local hospital. The administrative hurdle doesn’t apply to other outpatient procedures like the ones performed by cosmetic surgeons, dentists, oral surgeons, urologists, and orthopedic surgeons.