The day abortion was legalized was a blockbuster for news: Former President Lyndon B. Johnson died of a heart attack. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was in Paris, ending the Vietnam War. Hallucinogenic-drug advocate Timothy Leary was apprehended by police. Antiwar activists Jane Fonda and Tom Hayden were newlyweds. Nigeria’s worst plane crash killed 176 people. And Nixon administration operative G. Gordon Liddy was in court over a break-in at the Watergate complex.
Virtually buried among the screaming headlines was the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that overturned Texas abortion laws in favor of an anonymous, pregnant woman named “Jane Roe.”
Women have a constitutional right to abortion, said the 7-2 decision. Although the court set up a trimester scheme to permit some state regulations, abortion was now legally available in all states, often “on demand.”
“On that Monday morning in early 1973, [Supreme Court Justice] Harry Blackmun knew he was making history. He had invited his wife to the marbled courtroom to hear his announcement of Roe v. Wade,” Newsweek reporters David Kaplan and Bob Cohn wrote.
In Justice Blackmun’s opening remarks, he said the court was aware “of the sensitive and emotional nature of the abortion controversy.” But based on prior legal decisions, the high court perceived in the 14th Amendment “a right of privacy” that included “a woman’s decision whether or not to terminate” a pregnancy.
Newspaper reports were succinct, a la the “High Court Rules Abortions Legal the First 3 Months” headline in The New York Times. Other news reports predicted that the Roe decision finally would settle the issue, and end “emotion-charged hearings” on abortion, The Des Moines Register wrote, and liberate politicians and public servants from dealing with the “distractive issue,” The Milwaukee Journal said.
But historian Allan Carlson noted in 1998 that of all the historical events that occurred in early January 1973, only the Roe decision still dominates the public square.
“Few, if any, gatherings will remember Nixon’s second inaugural, Johnson’s death, the Christmas bombing, or even the end of the Vietnam War,” said Mr. Carlson. Instead, the “second-page” Roe decision is what cannot be forgotten.
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Cheryl Wetzstein covers family and social issues as a national reporter for The Washington Times. She has been a reporter for three decades, working in New York City and Washington, D.C. Since joining The Washington Times in 1985, she has been a features writer, environmental and consumer affairs reporter, and assistant business editor. Beginning in 1994, Mrs. Wetzstein worked exclusively ...
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