Discussion Questions on Roe v. Wade

1. The question the court addressed in Roe v. Wade was whether the constitutional rights of women and of developing embryos and fetuses (if they have any) require that abortion be legal during at least some portion of pregnancy. How does this question differ from the moral question, "Ought abortion to be legal during at least some portion of pregnancy?" How do the arguments that are relevant to the first question differ from the arguments that are relevant to the second question? Is there anything in Judge Blackmun's opinion that is relevant to the second question?

2. On what grounds does the Court find that fetuses are not "persons"?

3. Blackmun writes, "We need not resolve the difficult question of when life begins. When those trained in the respective disciplines of medicine, philosophy, and theology are unable to arrive at any consensus, the judiciary, at this point in the development of man's knowledge, is not in a position to speculate as to the answer."

a. What is the question that need not be resolved?

b. Is this the same question as whether the fetus is alive? Why or why not?

c. Is this the same question as whether the fetus is human? Why or why not?

d. Is this a biological question? Do biologists have anything to contribute to answering it?

e. What would count as evidence for the claim that life begins at such and such a moment? Do photographs of fetuses or ultra-sound images constitute evidence?

4. Blackmun writes, "With respect to the State's important and legitimate interest in potential life, the "compelling" point is at viability. This is so because the fetus then presumably has the capability of meaningful life outside the mother's womb. State regulation protective of fetal life after viability thus has both logical and biological justifications. If the State is interested in protecting fetal life after viability, it may go so far as to proscribe abortion during that period, except when it is necessary to preserve the life or health of the mother... .

a. What are the "logical" and "biological" justifications for making viability the dividing line, after which the State may proscribe abortion on the grounds of its interest in protecting fetal life?

b. Suppose that a woman who is seven months pregnant wants to end the pregnancy by inducing labor. If labor is induced, she will most likely deliver a viable infant, though at seven months it will be subject to much higher risks than it would have been if it were carried to term. Does Blackmun's decision permit the State to prevent a woman from inducing labor in a case such as this one?

c. What if a woman who is seven month's pregnant will suffer serious permanent health effects (such as some sort of paralysis, for example) if an abortion is not performed, but her life is not in danger. Does Blackmun's opinion give her the right to have an abortion? What arguments can you make for or against?