Justice  /  Explainer

The History of Abortion Law in the United States

The right to abortion has been both supported and contested throughout history.  When banned, abortions still occur, but legal restrictions make them less safe.

From 1973 until 1992, restrictions on abortion were passed in almost every state. Abortion rights activists appealed, but the Supreme Court rejected hearing most of these cases. However, during this time period the Court handed down several major rulings that made it more difficult for young people and those with limited funds to access abortion.

Bellotti v. Baird and Parental Consent

In Bellotti v. Baird (1979), the Supreme Court ruled that states could insist that a minor obtain parental consent to obtain an abortion. The Court, however, required that states provide a judicial bypass option, whereby young people could petition a judge for permission to obtain an abortion without notifying their parents – if they could show that they were mature enough to make their own decision or that the abortion was in their best interests.

Rebecca Suzanne “Becky” Bell was the first person known to die of an illegal abortion because of parental consent laws. On September 16, 1988, the 17-year-old Indiana teenager died of complications from a septic abortion after becoming discouraged from obtaining a legal procedure because of Indiana’s parental consent law.

Hyde Amendment and Medicaid Funding

The Supreme Court also allowed Congress to block Medicaid funding for abortion. When Roe v. Wade legalized abortion, Medicaid — a healthcare program funded jointly by the federal government and individual states — covered abortion care as part of comprehensive health care services provided to low-income women.

But in 1976, Congress passed the Hyde Amendment, which banned the use of federal funding for abortion care, except in limited cases. Most states followed, instituting bans in their state Medicaid programs.

Because so many women depend upon Medicaid for their health care, the Hyde Amendment effectively made it much more difficult for low-income women — disproportionately women of color — to get abortions.

On October 3, 1977, a young mother named Rosie Jiménez, pursuing a nursing degree to support herself and her daughter, died after having an abortion in Mexico because Medicaid would not cover the cost of abortion in the United States. She was the first known victim of the Hyde Amendment.

In 1980, in Harris v. McRae, the Supreme Court upheld Hyde in a narrowly divided ruling, stating that women’s constitutional rights were not violated by the ban on federal funding for abortions, even if the abortion is medically necessary for a person’s health.

Planned Parenthood v. Casey: A New Legal Test

The next major Supreme Court ruling regarding abortion access came in 1992, when the Court, in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, considered a highly restrictive Pennsylvania law that required a 24-hour waiting period, spousal notification, parental consent, a mandate that doctors give biased counseling to people seeking abortion health care, and burdensome reporting requirements.