CHARTS: How Roe v. Wade changed abortion rights

January 22, 2013

Today marks the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court decision that made abortion a legal right. The decision was transformational: Overnight, abortion went from being banned by all but a handful of states to being legal in all 50. Movements quickly built up in defense, and opposition, of the ruling.

Forty years later, a lot has changed. While the Roe decision still stands, abortion opponents have made significant gains passing restrictions on abortion access. There are fewer abortion providers than there were in 1973 and fewer clinics. As Wonkblog did last year, we now provide an updated look at how the Roe decision changed abortion rights - and what has happened since.

1. Before the Roe decision, most states did not allow legal abortion. Prior to 1973, states determined the legality of abortion. Through the mid-1960s, 44 states outlawed abortion in nearly all situations that did not threaten the life or health of the mother. States began liberalizing their abortion laws in the 1960s and 1970s. This map shows the situation in the early-1970s, when Roe was decided.

The four maroon states legalized abortion in nearly all cases before the fetus was viable. The 14 pink states allowed abortions in some circumstances. Nearly all others continued to ban abortion in most cases.

2. Legal abortion rates increased significantly following the Roe decision but have declined for the past three decades. In 1973, Roe v. Wade legalized first-trimester, elective abortion and also gave some protections to terminations later in the pregnancy. Abortion rates climbed after the decision, a trend that had started in the late 1960s, as states began liberalizing their abortion laws.

Abortion rates have now been declining since the 1980s and hit an all-time low in 2009, the most recent year for which data is available.

3. Public opinion has always seen a big split on Roe, although it has fluctuated over time. Harris Interactive has polled the American public on the Roe decision since it happened. Here are their findings:

Roe saw its highest approval ratings in the early 1990s, right around when the Supreme Court issued another decision on abortion, Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which ruled that certain restrictions on abortion access, like waiting periods, were constitutional. The decision had the lowest appeal in 2006, the same time that Congress outlawed a late-term abortion procedure that came to be known as "partial birth abortion."

4. The number of abortion providers has declined steadily since the mid-1970s, although looks to have held relatively steady in the late 2000s.

abortion4
(The Guttmacher Institute)

Ever since the early 1980s, the number of doctors performing abortions has steadily declined. A number of factors likely contribute to this trend, including state-level abortion restrictions and a wave of violence against abortion providers in the 1990s, when five were killed. The decrease in abortion providers has correlated with a decrease in the rate of abortions.

5. Abortion has become increasingly concentrated among low-income, minority women. Over the past four decades, the demographics of abortion have shifted significantly. In 1973, white women accounted for over three-quarters of all abortions. Now, that number hovers just below 60 percent.

The economic status of abortion patients has changed too, shifting more towards lower income women.
abortion7

6. A wave of abortion restrictions passed in 2011, followed by a steep drop in 2012. Roe provides widespread protections to elective abortions in the first trimester of pregnancy. But in later rulings, the Supreme Court has allowed states to restrict access to abortion. Since them, states have increasingly done so. In 2011, states passed 92 laws restricting abortion access, more than double the restrictions passed in any other year. The number dropped to 43 in 2012 - fewer than in 2011, but still higher than any other year prior.

7. Most abortion restrictions target minors or focus on delaying the procedure with a waiting period.

States have gravitated towards a handful of abortion restrictions that appear to pass muster with the Supreme Court. Waiting periods and parental notifications became more frequent in the 1990s, after the Supreme Court ruled that such restrictions did not represent an "undue burden" on the woman.

More recently, states have begun to focus on banning abortions after 20 weeks. While many abortion rights supports believe those laws violate Roe (it does not allow for abortion bans prior to viability), no challenge on the issue has yet reached the Supreme Court.

8. Research has found countries with more liberal abortion laws have lower abortion rates. How abortion restrictions affect abortion rates isn't completely clear. States with fewer abortion restrictions have tended to have higher abortion rates, in part because they include women traveling from out-of-state to terminate a pregnancy.

A recent study from the Guttmacher Institute, however, questions the role of restrictions. It found that countries with more liberal abortion laws tend to have lower rates of abortion -- perhaps due to factors like greater access to contraception.

That research, published in the Lancet, also found countries with more abortion restrictions to have higher rates of abortion-related deaths.

9. Most young Americans do not know that the Roe decision was about abortion. Pew surveyed on the issue earlier this month, and found that 44 percent of Americans under 30 could identify the Roe decision as having to do with abortion.

The abortion rights movement has especially worried about how to engage a younger generation, which grew up in an era of legal abortion and may not see threats to access as acutely.

Related Reading

- Roe at 40: "It's never been this frightening before."

- Interview: Why NARAL's Nancy Keenan stepped down to make way for a young leader

- Surprise! The abortion rate just hit an all-time low.

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Neil Irwin | January 22, 2013