30th Anniversary of Roe v. Wade
NPR News Series Examines Landmark Abortion Ruling

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A crowd at the 1997 March for Life in Washington, D.C.
A crowd at the 1997 March for Life in Washington, D.C.
Photo: Tim Broderick, courtesy People for Life.

Protesters outside the Supreme Court.
Protesters outside the Supreme Court.
Photo: Lisa Bennett, Courtesy NOW

Jan. 22, 2003 -- It's been 30 years since the Supreme Court ruled that the relationship between a woman and her doctor was a private affair, not subject to governmental interference. Written by Justice Harry A. Blackmun, the ruling declared that the guarantee of liberty in the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution extends a right to privacy "broad enough to encompass a woman’s decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy."

The case came to be known as Roe versus Wade. The ruling meant that from then on, the decision whether to have an abortion would be a matter for a woman and her health provider to decide. The procedure was made legal in all states, though Blackmun wrote that "this right is not unqualified and must be considered against important state interests in regulation."

Over the decades, there have been various attempts to take advantage of Blackmun's exception in the effort to place restrictions on abortion. The debates that have ensued have polarized the American political atmosphere like no other issue. Polls show consistently that a majority of Americans are opposed to abortion itself, but they are evenly split on whether women should have the right to choose an abortion.

On the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the Supreme Court ruling, NPR News is producing a series of stories that examine the state of abortion rights in America. The anniversary comes at what many see as a crucial turning point in the debate.

In recent months, opponents of abortion rights have successfully built a new line of offense against the Supreme Court's decision, hoping ultimately that the Court will grant the fetus legal "personhood," giving it the same rights as children and adults. That ultimately could lead the court to overturn the rights guaranteed by Roe v. Wade.

Installments in the NPR series:

Sex Education or Abstinence Programs?
NPR health correspondent Richard Knox examines efforts by abstinence-only supporters to replace comprehensive sex education programs with programs that stress abstinence-until-marriage.

This is occurring as the rate of abortions continues a years-long decline.Those who support abortion rights credit the rapid growth of comprehensive sex education programs, which explain to children and adolescents how to protect themselves against pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.

Those opposed to abortion rights tend to give more credit to recent efforts to replace comprehensive sex education with abstinence-until-marriage programs. These programs de-emphasize the mechanics of sexual activity and protection, promoting instead a lifestyle where teens find abstinence enjoyable and fulfilling.

Looking solely at existing scientific studies, it's not possible to single out one reason for the decline in abortion rates. Opponents of abortion rights say abstinence programs have lowered teen pregnancy rates. Supporters of comprehensive sex education say that the abstinence programs haven't been around long enough to have had that much of an impact on teen pregnancy or abortion rates. Supporters of sex education emphasize that while abstinence is a worthwhile goal, teaching children and adolescents about sex is the best way to prevent unwanted pregnancies, abortions and sexually transmitted diseases.

audio icon Listen to Knox's report.

moreExpanded Coverage.

Parents and Sex Education
NPR health correspondent Joanne Silberner examines a case where a Bush administration official used religious grounds for canceling a program that encouraged family discussions of sex. The program included discussions of condoms, which the official found offensive.

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Abortion-Rights Opponents Gain Ground
NPR health policy correspondent Julie Rovner chronicles the recent incremental successes by abortion rights opponents. These include making fetuses eligible for the Children's Health Insurance Program and declaring embryos to be research subjects. Opponents of abortion rights have won Bush administration support for ending funding to international aid to programs that mention or perform abortions, favoring instead abstinence-only education programs. At every step, abortion rights advocates have fought to defeat these inroads, albeit unsuccessfully.

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The GOP and Abortion Rights
NPR health policy correspondent Julie Rovner examines the immediate political future. With a Republican president opposed to abortion rights in the White House and a new Congress firmly in the control of the Republican Party, those who seek to ban or limit abortion rights seem likely to advance their agenda significantly in next two years.

They're asking Congress to act quickly to ban late abortions they call "partial-birth" abortions. They're proposing laws to protect fetuses injured during violent crimes against pregnant women. Another proposed law would prevent adults from taking adolescents across state lines for abortions. Also in sight are measures that would make it easier for hospitals and providers to decline to offer abortion services.

audio icon Listen to Rovner's report.

International Family Planning
What happens on abortion rights in the United States can also have a dramatic effect on other countries. NPR international health correspondent Brenda Wilson looks at the roles abortion and abstinence-only education play in the international arena. Those who oppose abortion rights and support abstinence only say that the main reason for a recent drop in HIV rates in Uganda are successful programs urging abstinence. That's despite a new study showing that increased condom use and safe-sex education reduces the number of sexual partners and delays sexual initiation. Nevertheless, abstinence-only proponents are using Uganda as a model for promoting abstinence in the United States.
audio icon Listen to Wilson's report.

Public Conversations Project
NPR correspondent Margot Adler takes a look at a phenomenon not previously reported -- secret conversations of abortion rights supporters and opponents. Since the shooting deaths of two women at two Boston abortion clinic seven years ago, a group of abortion rights activists, pro and con, have been meeting and discussing their differences and similarities. We listen in on some of their discussions.

audio icon Listen to Adler's report.

moreExpanded Coverage.

The Political History of the Abortion Debate
NPR political correspondent Mara Liasson looks back at the history of the battle for and against abortion rights through several administrations, with excerpts of speeches from Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton.

audio icon Listen to Liasson's report .

In Depth

Hear past NPR coverage of Roe v. Wade and other abortion issues.

View a timeline of key Supreme Court cases on abortion.

Go to our online resource list to learn more about Roe v. Wade and the organizations involved.