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Last Updated: July 23, 2012

Abortion: Do women have the right to an abortion in the United States?

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It should be a woman's right to decide whether or not she carries through a pregnancy. If abortions were illegal, women seeking to terminate their pregnancies would be forced to resort to unsafe and dangerous underground procedures. State governments restricting access to abortion are blocking the rights of women to decide what to do with their own bodies.


A fetus is a human life, and abortion is therefore murder. Even if a fetus was conceived by a rape, terminating a pregnancy amounts to killing an innocent child. The so-called morning-after pill constitutes abortion and should be banned. States that have attempted to limit abortions have done the right thing.

Issues and Controversies: Abortion Demonstration in 2011

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Pro-life and pro-choice demonstrators argue in front of the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., in January 2011.

The debate over abortion typically contains little in the way of middle ground. On one side are those who describe themselves as "pro-choice" and favor the mostly unrestricted availability of abortion to women, at least in earlier stages of pregnancy. On the other side are those who call themselves "pro-life" and see abortion as the murder of unborn babies. Although the number of abortions has been declining in recent years—the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports 234 abortions per 1,000 live births in 2008, the most recent year data were available, down from 344 in 1990—the debate over the issue has not abated.

One of the most fundamental issues in the debate over abortion is the question of whether a fetus is, in fact, a human being. No one denies that the cells making up the fetus, like the cells in the rest of the woman's body, are living. Rather, the key question is whether the fetus is a distinct human life, one that is independent from the woman in which it develops and one that deserves basic human rights. Responses to that question are numerous and complicated, involving a wide range of moral, legal, philosophical, spiritual, and medical perspectives on what it means to be human. [See Abortion: When Does Human Life Begin?]

The focal point of much of the abortion debate is a pair of 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decisions—Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton—that established most abortions in the early stages of pregnancy as protected under the Constitution. The Roe decision allowed certain restrictions to be placed on late-term abortion, however. In addition, it galvanized antiabortion activists, who created a powerful pro-life movement that has since clashed with supporters of Roe. Observers note that this movement has contributed to a spate of antiabortion laws that have cropped up in several states in recent years. The laws limit access to or discourage women from obtaining abortions in a number of ways, including instituting strict regulations on abortion clinics and forcing women to learn about the extent to which fetuses can feel pain.

One of the most contentious debates within the abortion issue is a procedure known as intact dilation and extraction (IDE), but more commonly referred to as "partial-birth" abortion, the term used by its critics. In IDE abortions, which are usually performed in the second trimester, the lower part of the fetus is delivered, then its skull is crushed so that it can pass through the birth canal. Following a protracted legal battle, the Supreme Court eventually sided with pro-life advocates—and the administration of President George W. Bush (R, 2001–09)—in 2007, upholding a ban on the practice with its decision in the case Gonzales v. Carhart et al. But far from resolving the abortion issue, the Court's decision only stoked the debate even more.

To what extent should women be allowed access to abortion in the United States?

Critics of abortion argue that fetuses are unborn babies and that killing them is murder. They note that most members of the public tend to favor restrictions on abortion beyond those currently in place and that a large majority opposes IDE. A similar majority, they point out, favors parental-notification laws that require unmarried women under a certain age to inform or gain consent from their parents before getting an abortion.

Supporters of abortion rights, on the other hand, counter that easy access to abortion is necessary in order to safeguard the health of women and to give them control over their lives. Most members of the public, they note, tend to identify as pro-choice and are against overturning Roe v. Wade. That shows that there is fundamental support for keeping abortion legal, they maintain.

Abortion Becomes a Contentious Legal and Social Issue

For much of the 20th century abortion was illegal throughout the United States. Many women, however—often young and unmarried—became pregnant by accident and, unable to raise a child, procured abortions illegally. Illegal abortions could be hazardous. Some women died as a result of the procedure; others suffered medical problems. As the women's rights movement gained momentum in the 1960s, many feminists argued that access to abortion was central to a woman's control over her own body; they advocated a loosening of the nation's laws against the procedure. Several states passed laws allowing abortions if deemed necessary to preserve a woman's life or health, and in the 1970s, Alaska, Hawaii, and New York legalized abortion. In its 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court held that abortion is protected under the constitutional right to privacy. However, Roe also permitted individual states to pass laws banning abortion after viability—the point at which a fetus could survive outside of the womb—as long as those laws allowed for exceptions to preserve the woman's health.

The Supreme Court revisited the Roe decision in 1992, when it ruled on laws that Pennsylvania had passed to regulate abortion. The law banned almost all abortions of fetuses more than 24 weeks old; it required that women wait 24 hours after applying to get abortions before undergoing the procedure, that their husbands be notified, and that the parents of underage girls be notified. In its decision, Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the Court ruled that states could put restrictions on abortion, but only if they did not place an "undue burden" on women seeking the procedure. The Court upheld the waiting period and parental-notification law in Pennsylvania, but rejected the requirement that wives tell their husbands as an undue burden.

The Casey ruling encouraged more states to pass laws restricting abortion. Those laws imposed waiting periods or mandatory counseling, or required that abortion providers notify or get consent from parents of minors getting abortions. According to the pro-choice group National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League (NARAL), 713 such laws were passed between 1995 and 2011.

Abortion was a frequent focus of the administration of President George W. Bush, who opposed the procedure. An outspoken social conservative, Bush was praised by pro-life groups—and criticized by pro-choice advocates—over his stance on abortion. While Bush acknowledged that most Americans supported the right to an abortion, he spoke in favor of a "culture of life" and said he supported abortion only in cases of rape, incest, or danger to a woman's life.

Bush also took some actions, and generally supported efforts, to restrict abortion. Upon taking office in January 2001, he issued an executive order that barred the federal government from funding international aid groups that provided abortions and abortion counseling. That order reinstated a policy that had been reversed in 1993 by President Bill Clinton (D, 1993–2001). (When Barack Obama became president in 2009, he issued an executive order reversing Bush's action.)

Bush also twice had the opportunity during his presidency to nominate justices to the U.S. Supreme Court. In 2005, Bush selected John Roberts, Jr., to succeed William Rehnquist as chief justice; he picked Samuel Alito, Jr., to become an associate justice the following year. During each nominee's confirmation hearing, many Democratic senators asked pointed questions about abortion in an attempt to gauge the nominee's view of its legality. Despite legal track records suggesting that both men disagreed with the Supreme Court's majority opinion in Roe, both Roberts and Alito said they would respect the Roe precedent. Pro-choice activists were not convinced, however, arguing that Roberts and Alito could represent key votes in eventually overturning Roe.

President Obama (D) has also had the opportunity to nominate Supreme Court justices during his presidency. In 2009 he appointed Sonia Sotomayor and in 2010 he appointed Elena Kagan. During their confirmation hearings, both nominees deflected questions from senators about abortion; indeed, neither nominee had much of a legal record indicating a stance on abortion one way or the other.

Through 2012, the Supreme Court has been said to consist of a four-member liberal wing (including Sotomayor and Kagan) and a four-member conservative wing (which includes Roberts and Alito). Justice Anthony Kennedy, who was appointed by President Ronald Reagan (R, 1981–89) in 1988, is widely considered to be a "swing" justice; although he generally sides with the Court's conservatives, he has also cast the deciding votes for the liberal wing in numerous highly partisan cases. However, many observers say that Kennedy has already demonstrated a strong pro-life inclination, in the 2007 decision that banned IDE ("partial-birth") abortions.

Although the number of IDE abortions performed in the United States was historically minuscule—0.17% of all abortions in the United States involved the procedure in 2000, the last year for which data are available—enacting a federal ban on IDE has nevertheless been a longstanding priority for abortion opponents. Laws banning the procedure cleared Congress twice in the 1990s, but Clinton vetoed them. In November 2003, a federal ban on IDE finally became law when President Bush signed the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act. The act banned IDE except in cases where the life of the woman was in danger. Pro-choice groups challenged the federal IDE ban in court, and it was struck down by federal judges in New York, California, and Nebraska.

Eventually, the Supreme Court took up the issue. In 2007, the Court upheld the 2003 Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act by a 5–4 vote, marking the first time the Court had ever backed a ban on a specific type of abortion procedure. Writing for the majority in the decision Gonzales v. Carhart, Justice Kennedy asserted that Congress has the "regulatory authority to show profound respect for the life within the woman"; he added that the government "has a legitimate and substantial interest in preserving and promoting fetal life." Both Roberts and Alito joined the majority decision. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, meanwhile, wrote the dissent, and—in an unusual move—chose to read her opinion from the bench. The majority's opinion, she wrote, "cannot be understood as anything other than an effort to chip away at a right declared again and again by this Court."

Issues and Controversies: Public Opinion on the Legality of Abortion (chart)

Pills and State Laws Shape Debate in Recent Years

Controversy has raged over several drugs that act to end or prevent pregnancies. One such pill is mifepristone (formerly known as RU-486), which can terminate pregnancies. Mifepristone was approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2000 as a prescription drug. Abortion opponents argued that its approval was a political move by the Clinton administration, which favored allowing access to abortion. After the suspicious deaths of a number of women who had taken the drug, the FDA in November 2004 required that mifepristone be sold with a more severe warning of potential side effects. Mifepristone is available by prescription only, under the brand name Mifeprex, in all 50 states and Washington, D.C.

According to the Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit pro-choice organization, nearly one-fifth of all abortions in the United States involve the use of mifepristone. Despite the drug's availability in every state, several states have passed laws limiting access to it. By the end of 2012, six states—Arizona, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, Tennessee, and Wisconsin—will require the clinician prescribing the drug to be in the presence of the patient as she takes the pill. Pro-choice activists have argued that, by requiring the additional doctor visit, such state laws make obtaining a legal abortion that much tougher. 

Another controversy involves a drug called Plan B One-Step. Also known as the "morning-after pill," Plan B does not induce the abortion of fetuses as mifepristone does. Instead, it uses concentrated amounts of the chemicals found in birth control pills to prevent pregnancy up to 72 hours after sex. Some abortion opponents have condemned the drug as a type of abortion. Plan B is sold over the counter to women aged 17 and older; women 16 and younger need a prescription. In 2011, the FDA approved the sale of the pill as an over-the-counter drug to those under age 17, but, in an unprecedented and highly controversial move, Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius overturned the decision. President Barack Obama (D), in defending HHS's decision, argued that increasing the availability of the drug made it more likely that young girls would have access to the pill and be able to purchase it at drugstores "alongside bubble gum or batteries."

Many states, meanwhile, have been passing their own abortion laws. Since the Roe v. Wade decision, the Guttmacher Institute observers, "states have constructed a lattice work of abortion law, codifying, regulating and limiting whether, when and under what circumstances a woman may obtain an abortion." In recent years, the trend has been toward making access to abortions more difficult. In 2011, 69 state laws restricting access to abortion were passed throughout the United States, just one shy of the record set in 1999.

These laws have taken many forms. For example, 19 states have passed laws requiring abortion providers to give patients counseling before undergoing an abortion. The counseling can include information on the ability of fetuses to feel pain and about an alleged (and much-disputed) link between abortions and breast cancer. Several other states, including Texas and Virginia, have passed laws requiring that women seeking abortions first undergo an ultrasound; pro-life activists claim the laws are intended to provide women with as much information as possible before they undergo an abortion, while pro-choice activists say the laws are intended to pressure the women into rejecting the procedure by forcing them to look at their unborn fetuses. [See Mandatory Ultrasounds]

Additionally, as of July 2012, 37 states require some form of parental involvement before a minor can legally get an abortion, according to the Guttmacher Institute. In 21 states, minors must obtain permission from both parents before they can get an abortion, and in 11 states, minors must notify at least one parent. Five more states require both notification and parental permission. However, all but one of these 37 states—Maryland—allow for an alternative to parental involvement; minors seeking abortions can file papers seeking a legal waiver from a judge in the place of parental notification or permission. However, such waivers can be extremely hard to obtain; five states, for example, require a rigorous analysis of a minor's mental and emotional state before such a waiver is granted.

Still other states have instituted strict regulations on abortion clinics, which, according to abortion rights supporters, are designed to shut down these clinics. A law passed in Mississippi in April 2012, for example, requires all abortion providers to be certified in obstetrics and gynecology and have admitting privileges at a local hospital. Pro-choice supporters say that this rule will almost certainly force Mississippi's sole abortion clinic to close. Mississippi governor Phil Bryan (R) and other pro-life supporters, however, contend that the law is designed primarily to "protect patient safety in the event of a complication during the procedure."

Abortion foes maintain that the new state laws are all well-intentioned. Abortion clinics should be strictly regulated, they argue, and young women should be counseled before having an abortion as they may not be fully aware of the physical and mental health risks involved. Abortion rights supporters, however, charge that such laws are overblown and that abortion is a safe procedure for most women. Should there be more or less access to abortion procedures in the United States?

Supporters Insist Access to Abortions Is Vital

Supporters of abortion rights argue that access to abortion has improved the lives of women in the United States. For one thing, they maintain, it has lessened the health risks faced by women getting abortions. Before the Roe v. Wade decision, they note, many women seeking abortions had to visit unregulated and often illegal practitioners. "The most important benefit [of Roe]," states the website of Planned Parenthood, which provides reproductive and other health care services, including abortions, "has been the end of an era that supported the proliferation of 'back alley butchers' who were motivated by money alone and performed unsafe, medically incompetent abortions that left many women dead or injured."

Access to abortion also improves women's opportunities and autonomy, supporters assert. Women who become pregnant at a young age, they contend, are often constrained in what they can accomplish because they are forced to raise children. Access to abortion, they argue, allows women to better plan and maintain their lives. They add that when women cannot get abortions they have unwanted children, whom they may neglect or mistreat. "Although most women welcome pregnancy, childbirth and the responsibilities of raising a child at some period in their lives, few events can more dramatically constrain a woman's opportunities than an unplanned child," states the NARAL website. NARAL adds that "restrictive abortion laws narrowly circumscribed women's role in society and hindered women from defining their paths through life in the most basic of ways."

Proponents note that there are more Americans who describe themselves as pro-choice than pro-life. For instance, they cite a May 2011 Gallup poll in which 49% of respondents identified themselves as pro-choice, compared with 45% who say they are pro-life. And supporters point out that most people tend to say they support the Roe decision as well, which, they claim, illustrates that most people appreciate the importance of keeping abortion available.

Supporters contend that the restrictions on abortion that states have imposed in recent years seriously impede to women's freedom to choose. Availability of abortion varies from state to state, they note, creating an unequal level of access for women in various parts of the country. The situation resembles the state of abortion law before the Roe decision, they maintain. "Anti-choice lawmakers are attacking the fundamental right to choose from every angle," argues Kate Michelman, former president of NARAL. "State governments are intruding further than they have in years into women's private lives and decisions."

Similarly, most abortion rights supporters reject parental-involvement laws. They argue that requiring the notification or consent of parents has the effect of restricting young women's access to abortion, since they might be unwilling to tell parents, particularly when they have troubled relationships with them. As the Planned Parenthood website states:

Few would deny that most teenagers, especially younger ones, would benefit from adult guidance when faced with an unwanted pregnancy. Few would deny that such guidance ideally should come from the teenager's parents. Unfortunately, we do not live in an ideal world. For a variety of reasons, including fear of parental maltreatment or abuse, teenagers frequently cannot tell their parents about their pregnancies or planned abortions.

Finally, supporters note that it is ironic that antiabortion groups oppose the use of Plan B One-Step. It is an exaggeration to link the drug with abortion, they argue; its purpose is to prevent unwanted pregnancy. That is something that abortion opponents should support, proponents assert, since fewer unwanted pregnancies mean fewer abortions. Additionally, proponents contend that the Obama administration's decision to limit its over-the-counter sale to women aged 17 or older flies in the face of all accepted research on the drug. "Acetaminophen [the basic ingredient in Tylenol and other painkillers] can be fatal, but it's available to everyone," said Susan Wood, the former FDA women's health director. "So why are contraceptives singled out every single time when they're actually far safer than what's already out there?"

Opponents Denounce Access to Abortion

Pro-life supporters condemn the widespread access to abortion that was ushered in by the Roe decision in 1973. They argue that fetuses should be considered human beings and that abortion is tantamount to murder. Abortion rights supporters, Mississippi governor Phil Bryant says, have "one mission in life, [which] is to abort children, is to kill children in the womb."

Most of the public, opponents contend, is uncomfortable with abortion, which is why polls tend to show that many Americans favor restricting access to abortion. For example, they note that in a Pew Research Center poll conducted in April 2012, just 23% of respondents said that abortion should be legal in all cases, while 39% said it should be illegal in all or most cases.

Although abortion rights groups often say that women who get abortions are unable to take care of children, opponents argue that in reality there are a number of ways to cope with an unwanted baby. For instance, the antiabortion group the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC) claims that there are nearly 3,000 crisis pregnancy centers in the United States. These centers advertise their willingness to provide clothes and equipment for babies, as well as financial assistance and advice for expectant mothers and information on adoption. "Despite all their talk about 'choice,' those at abortion clinics who counsel women on their options often act as if abortion is a woman's only realistic alternative," states an NRLC pamphlet. "This simply isn't so."

Opponents contend that the easier it is to get an abortion, the more abortion is treated as simply another form of birth control. That way of thinking is especially encouraged by Plan B One-Step, they assert, which makes terminating a pregnancy as simple as taking a pill within a few days of having sex. Widespread availability of Plan B could encourage unprotected sex, they claim, which could spread disease. "Easy access to the morning-after pill encourages frequent use and will cause [sexually transmitted disease] rates—already at epidemic levels—to increase," write Wendy Wright, Carol Denner, and Jill Stanek of Concerned Women for America, a pro-life group.

Some critics oppose abortion in all instances, even in cases where the mother has been raped. Former senator Rick Santorum (R, Pennsylvania), who ran for president in 2012, argues that abortion is murder under any circumstances. "[Y]ou can make the argument that if she doesn't have this baby, if she kills her child, that that, too, could ruin her life," Santorum said in early 2012. "And this is not an easy choice, I understand that. As horrible as the way that that son or daughter and son was created, it still is her child."

Many abortion opponents favor overturning the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion. Ending federal protection of abortion rights would allow individual states to either legalize or outlaw abortion, which, opponents claim, would be far more democratic. "I would love the Supreme Court to say, 'Let's send this back to the states,'" said former Massachusetts governor and likely 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. "Rather than having a federal mandate through Roe v. Wade, let the states again consider this issue state by state."

In the Wake of New Abortion Restrictions, Will Roe v. Wade Be Overturned?

The recent surge in state laws restricting abortion access has been characterized by pro-choice advocates, and by many Democratic politicians, as being indicative of a Republican-led "war on women." "No matter what you call this golden era in American legislating," wrote Erin Gloria Ryan for the feminist website Jezebel, "2012 is, for better or worse, an exciting/harrowing time to have female anatomy, or to be a guy who enjoys having sexual relations with or cares about people who have female anatomy." Abortion foes, meanwhile, have cheered the recent uptick in state laws limiting access to abortion. Many have expressed hope that, in the current political climate, Roe v. Wade could finally be overturned.

Indeed, the upcoming 2012 presidential election could determine the future of abortion rights in the United States. President Obama supports abortion rights; presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney, however, has called the Roe decision "one of the darkest moments in Supreme Court history." The winner of the presidency in November could end up having the chance to appoint at least two new justices to the Court. Indeed, with five members of the Court over the age of 70, three of whom are approaching 80, multiple vacancies might occur in the next four years. If the current alignment shifts in a more conservative direction, Roe could potentially be overturned in the future. No matter what happens, the debate over abortion is likely to continue.


Abboud, Leila. "Morning-After Pill Should Be Sold Over the Counter, FDA Panel Says." Wall Street Journal, December 17, 2003,

Biskupic, Joan. "Abortion Battles Waged Mostly at the Edges." USA Today, August 23, 2005,

Boedeker, Hal. "Mitt Romney Tells Barack Obama to 'Start Packing,' Wants Supreme Court to Overturn Roe v. Wade." Orlando Sentinel, April 16, 2012,

Calmes, Jackie, and Gardiner Harris. "Obama Endorses Decision to Limit Morning-After Pill." New York Times, December 8, 2011,

Harris, Gardiner. "Plan to Widen Availability of Morning-After Pill Is Rejected." New York Times, December 7, 2011,

———. "U.S. Again Delays Decision on Sale of Next-Day Pill." New York Times, August 27, 2005,

Harris, Lynn. "Supreme Court Upholds Ban on 'Partial-Birth' Abortion." Salon, April 19, 2007,

Lee, MJ. "Miss. Governor Signs Abortion Law." Politico, April 16, 2012,

Lithwick, Dalia. "Poster Children." Slate, May 22, 2002,

Price, Joyce. "GOP Seeks Suspension of RU-486." Washington Times, November 17, 2004,

Saletan, William. "I Feel Your Fetus's Pain." Slate, August 31, 2005,

Toner, Robin, and Adam Liptak. "In New Court, Roe May Stand, So Foes Look to Limit Its Scope." New York Times, July 10, 2005,

Additional Sources

Additional information about abortion can be found in the following sources:

Beckwith, Francis. Defending Life: A Moral and Legal Case Against Abortion Choice. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Page, Christina. How the Pro-Choice Movement Saved America: Freedom, Politics and the War on Sex. New York, Basic Books, 2006

Contact Information

Information on how to contact organizations that are either mentioned in the discussion of abortion or can provide additional information on the subject is listed below:

NARAL Pro-Choice America
1156 15th St. N.W.
Suite 700
Washington, D.C. 20005
Telephone: (202) 973-3000

National Right to Life Committee
512 10th St. N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20004
Telephone: (202) 626-8800

Food and Drug Administration
10903 New Hampshire Ave.
Silver Spring, Md. 20993
Telephone: (888) 463-6332


For further information about the ongoing debate over abortion, search for the following words and terms in electronic databases and other publications:

Parental-involvement laws
"Partial-birth" abortion
Plan B One-Step
Roe v. Wade

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