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Look Not Only at Roe, But Also at Doe


On January 22, 1973, the United States Supreme Court ruled on the Texas abortion case Roe v. Wade. In a 7 to 2 decision, the Court declared that the right to an abortion was a fundamental right included in the guarantee of personal privacy, safe guarded in the 14th Amendment’s concept of personal liberty. On the same day, the Court decided another abortion case out of Georgia, Doe v. Bolton. While the Roe decision receives most of the attention regarding the constitutionality of abortion, it is only in tandem with Doe that we fully understand the details of this right to privacy.

Writing for the 7-2 majority—the same 7-2 majority that had decided Roe—Justice Harry Blackmun’s opinion in Doe invalidated the Georgia state abortion law, and declared the medical board approval and residency requirements for an abortion unconstitutional and in violation of a woman’s right to personal privacy. The Court affirmed these rights in such areas as procreation, contraception, family relationships, child rearing, and education. While Blackmun recognized the deep and seemingly absolute convictions held by both sides, he wrote that in a civic society the right to decide whether or not to terminate a pregnancy can only ever be a constitutional matter.

The Doe decision also broadened and specifically defined the meaning of “health” as it relates to abortion decisions and privacy rights. The Court upheld the District Court’s definition of health, and thus applied it to the entire nation, as the physical, emotional, psychological, familial, and age-related factors relevant to the well-being of the woman. While Roe allowed for increased state intervention during the 2nd and 3rd trimesters, with limited exceptions in cases of the woman’s health, it was Doe that provided the breadth and specificity as to what health meant. Therefore, in order to understand the Court’s 1973 decision on abortion, we must look not only at Roe, but also at Doe.


Dr. Robin C. Henry holds a Ph.D. in U.S. history from Indiana University and is an associate professor in the history department at Wichita State University. Her research examines the intersections among sexuality, law, and regional identity in the 19th- and early 20th-century United States.