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Week of 23 January 1998

Vol. I, No. 17

Feature Article

Conference marks 25th anniversary of Roe v. Wade

by Brian Fitzgerald

Following the 25th anniversary of the momentous United States Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion, Boston University will host a two-day conference exploring the meaning of the opinion, its modifications over the past quarter century, its importance to women, and its durability despite bitter controversy.

On January 22, 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Texas law making abortion a crime. Boston University School of Public Health Professor George Annas, one of the speakers at the conference, says that the ruling was "an astonishing change" that had "a profound impact" on society. "It made a procedure that was illegal in the majority of the states legal," says Annas, chair of the health law department at SPH and the School of Medicine. "The decision essentially mainstreamed abortion in everyday medicine."

At the conference, on January 23 and 24, experts in medicine, law, bioethics, and social science will analyze how changes in reproductive medicine, political climates, and cultural mores may affect Roe v. Wade in the future. Roe is a pseudonym for Norma McCorvey, who was a single pregnant woman; Henry Wade was Dallas County's district attorney. In 1970, McCorvey and her lawyer, Sarah Weddington, filed a class action suit in U.S. District Court challenging the constitutionality of the Texas criminal abortion laws, which prohibited procuring or attempting an abortion, except on medical advice for the purpose of saving the mother's life.

The case was ultimately decided by the U.S. Supreme Court three years later. According to the majority decision, written by Justice Harry Blackmun, the right to privacy in the due process clause of the 14th Amendment, along with the 9th Amendment's reservation of "unenumerated rights for the people," give a woman the constitutional right to an abortion. The decision has become one of the country's most divisive issues.

Topics at the conference will also include how advances in fetal medicine over the past two decades may affect the analysis of Roe v. Wade, its impact on both federal and state policies, legal protection for fetuses before and after the Supreme Court ruling, and the decision's impact on American medicine, bioethics, and the doctor-patient relationship.

Although state legislatures have sought to test the boundaries of the ruling, "the assertion that Roe v. Wade has been modified over the years has been grossly overstated," says Annas. "The core of the decision remains the same today as it did 25 years ago: the state cannot make abortion a crime before viability" -- that is, during the first trimester. "After viability, a woman's right to continue her pregnancy may be compromised by the state if her life or health is not at issue."

Other BU speakers at the conference will be Michael Grodin, professor of health law and medical ethics at MED and SPH, Wendy Mariner, professor of health law at SPH, Leonard Glantz, professor of health law and associate dean of SPH, Elizabeth Brown, director of neonatology and associate professor of pediatrics at MED, and Phillip Stubblefield, professor and chair of obstetrics and gynecology at MED.

The conference, which is sponsored by the health law department at SPH and MED, along with the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, will take place from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the George Sherman Union Conference Auditorium on Friday, January 23, and from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the School of Management Conference Auditorium on Saturday, January 24. For more information, call 638-4626.