A state criminal abortion statute that excepts from criminality only a lifesaving procedure on behalf of the mother, without regard to pregnancy stage and without recognition of the other interests involved, is violative of the U.S. Const. amend. XIV. For the stage prior to approximately the end of the first trimester, the abortion decision and its effectuation must be left to the medical judgment of the pregnant woman's attending physician. For the stage subsequent to approximately the end of the first trimester, the state, in promoting its interest in the health of the mother, may, if it chooses, regulate the abortion procedure in ways that are reasonably related to maternal health. For the stage subsequent to viability, the state in promoting its interest in the potentiality of human life may, if it chooses, regulate, and even proscribe, abortion except where it is necessary, in appropriate medical judgment, for the preservation of the life or health of the mother.
An unmarried pregnant woman who wished to terminate her pregnancy by abortion instituted an action in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas, seeking a declaratory judgment that the Texas criminal abortion statutes, which prohibited abortions except with respect to those procured or attempted by medical advice for the purpose of saving the life of the mother, were unconstitutional. The district court declared the laws violated U.S. Const. amends. IX and XIV privacy rights and was vague and overbroad, but denied the injunction. The case was appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States.
Is the Texas criminal abortion statute law prohibiting abortions unconstitutional?
The Court held that abortion was within the scope of the personal liberty guaranteed by the Due Process Clause. Although this right is not absolute and could be regulated by narrowly drawn legislation aimed at vindicating legitimate, compelling state interests in the mother’s health and safety and the potentiality of human life. The former became compelling, and was thus grounds for regulation after the first trimester of pregnancy, beyond which the state could regulate abortion to preserve and protect maternal health. The latter became compelling at viability, upon which a state could proscribe abortion except to preserve the mother’s life or health. Furthermore, the Court noted that the Texas statutes made no distinction between abortions performed early in pregnancy and those performed later, and it limited the legal justification for the procedure to a single reason --saving the mother's life -- so it could not survive the constitutional attack.