Roe v. Wade Overturned Explained: What Does It Mean?

Alexa Davidson, MSN, RN
Updated July 13, 2022
    The Supreme Court recently overturned the Roe v. Wade ruling that made abortions a constitutional right for women. Learn the history of Roe v. Wade and what's changed.
    Featured ImageCredit: Getty Images
    • The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that abortion bans are not constitutional.
    • Individual states now have the power to ban or limit abortions. Abortions will become illegal in about half of the states in the U.S.
    • Healthcare professionals in some states can be criminally charged for performing an abortion.

    On June 24, 2022, the United States Supreme Court issued its ruling to overturn Roe v. Wade, declaring people no longer have a constitutional right to get abortions. The decision came in response to Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, a case that asked a single question: “Are abortion bans constitutional?”

    The U.S. Supreme Court voted “no,” declaring abortion laws are not a matter of the federal government. The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 to overturn Roe v. Wade. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito issued a statement declaring that appointed legislators in each state will now have the power to determine whether abortion is legal.

    We discuss what this decision means for people seeking abortion care and how nurses will be impacted.

    What Is Roe v. Wade?

    Kept anonymous under the pseudonym “Jane Roe,” Norma McCorvey was the original plaintiff in the Roe v. Wade case that went to the Supreme Court in 1973.

    She became a mother at sixteen, giving away her first child to her mother and placed her second child up for adoption. During her third pregnancy, she wanted an abortion but was prohibited by Texas law. In the 1970s in Texas, people could only receive an abortion if the pregant prson’s life was at risk.

    Together with her lawyers, McCorvey took her case to the Supreme Court in a class-action lawsuit against the district attorney of Dallas County, Henry Wade.

    On February 26, 1973, Roe won the case, and the Supreme Court ruled that abortions were a constitutional right. The decision would allow people to get abortions during the first trimester “free of interference by the State.”

    The Roe v. Wade court ruling was a landmark victory for people’s reproductive rights. After Roe v. Wade was instituted, people received widespread access to safe abortion care.

    Abortion Before Roe v. Wade

    The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines abortion as “an intervention performed by a licensed clinician (e.g., a physician, nurse midwife, nurse practitioner, physician assistant) within the limits of state regulations, that is intended to terminate a suspected or known ongoing intrauterine pregnancy and that does not result in a live birth.”

    Before Roe v. Wade, people found ways to have abortions — whether they were safe or not. For some, this meant illegal abortions performed in “back alley” clinics.

    Others opted to self-terminate pregnancies through methods like placing foreign objects into the cervix or drinking poisonous herbal medicines. As a result, many people died from complications related to infection and excessive bleeding.

    The Guttmacher Institute, a research and policy organization dedicated to promoting sexual and reproductive health, has studied abortion safety across the decades. According to Guttmacher:

    • In the 1930s, one in five maternal deaths were due to abortion.
    • Illegal abortions were the cause of 17% of maternal deaths in 1965.
    • In 1967, 829,000 illegal or self-induced abortions were performed.

    Many people traveled to places like New York to receive legal abortions, where the procedure was performed safely. However, traveling long distances for an abortion was risky, often making the difference between a first-trimester and second-trimester termination.

    Even in states where abortions were legal, people had to prove their case to a board of physicians.

    Abortion Rights Granted by Roe v. Wade

    With the institution of Roe v. Wade, states began making abortions legal. People in low-income populations — who statistically had higher incidences of complications and death — now had access to safe abortions.

    What Does the Overturning of Roe v. Wade Mean?

    Now that abortion laws are no longer regulated by the federal government, it’s up to individual states to determine if abortion is legal or not. Without federal protection, some states will ban abortion immediately due to a “trigger ban,” or a law that goes into effect automatically.

    Each state will define what constitutes a viable pregnancy and when a pregnancy can be terminated. States like Texas and South Carolina have a heartbeat bill, which says a woman cannot receive an abortion after a heartbeat is detected, or six weeks gestation.

    The Impact on Healthcare

    States where abortion will remain legal are preparing to care for higher volumes of people seeking abortions. Additional nursing support may be needed as people travel out of state to receive care.

    In states where abortions are illegal, healthcare professionals should anticipate an increase in complications from illegal and self-induced abortions. Women’s health nurses should be prepared to treat infections, bleeding, and other complications similar to those seen in the pre-Roe era.

    If you’re a women’s health nurse or nurse practitioner, become familiar with nursing practice laws in your state. In some states, healthcare providers can be criminally charged for performing an abortion.

    What Options People Have for Abortions

    Healthcare providers will remain protected by law to administer oral abortions, which account for about half of the abortions in the U.S.

    In an official statement announcing the Justice Department’s opposition to the ruling, Attorney General Merrick Garland showed support for healthcare providers performing abortions. He said:

    “Under the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, the Department will continue to protect healthcare providers and individuals seeking reproductive health services in states where those services remain legal.”

    [Food and Drug Administration’s] expert judgment about its safety and efficacy.”

    Mifepristone is an oral medication taken 70 days after a woman’s last menstrual period. The drug, often called “the abortion pill,” is taken to end early pregnancies.

    For people without access to safe abortion care, nonprofit organizations like Mayday are ready to help. They provide educational services on getting abortion pills by mail.

    Local, independent abortion clinics need funding to continue supporting people seeking abortion care. The National Network of Abortion Funds is one organization working toward removing financial barriers for abortion care. Well-funded organizations, including Planned Parenthood, are also committed to providing people with access to safe reproductive care. The Planned Parenthood Action Fund is collecting money to allocate resources for people seeking abortions. Their services help people travel to states where they can get abortions.

    The overturning of Roe v. Wade may present a challenge for many seeking care, but nurses can show their support by continuing to advocate for people’s reproductive rights in their role as nurses. As a nurse, you can support patients by offering counseling and referring people to available resources.