The 1973 Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade was a significant event in the story of fetal personhood—the story of whether embryos and fetuses are legal persons. Roe legalized abortion care in the United States (US). However, the story of fetal personhood began long before the 1970s. People have been talking about embryos, fetuses, and their status in science, the law, and society for centuries. I studied the history of fetal personhood in the United States, tracing its origins from Ancient Rome and Medieval England to its first appearance in a US courtroom in 1884 and then to the Supreme Court’s decision in 1973.
In 2010, the Catholic Church excommunicated Margaret McBride, a nun and ethics board member at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix, Arizona. McBride was excommunicated latae sententiae, or automatically, for approving a therapeutic abortion, which is an abortion that is required to save a pregnant woman’s life. McBride approved an abortion for a woman who was twenty-seven years old, eleven weeks pregnant with her fifth child, and suffered from pulmonary hypertension, a life-threatening condition during pregnancy. Following McBride’s decision, St. Joseph’s lost its affiliation with the Catholic Church, which it had maintained since the late 1800s. Affiliation with the Catholic Church required that the hospital abide by Canon Law, which is the law of the Catholic Church. Under Canon Law, abortion is serious wrongdoing that could result in excommunication, as it did in the case of McBride. McBride’s excommunication illustrated the impact that affiliation of Catholicism with hospitals had on patients’ ability to receive comprehensive reproductive health care.
In the 1971 court case United States v. Milan Vuitch, hereafter US v. Vuitch, the US Supreme Court ruled that a Washington, DC law was constitutional by overturning a 1969 district court decision. Beginning in the early twentieth century, Washington, DC, prohibited abortions except for abortions performed to preserve the life or health of the pregnant woman. In 1969, Milan Vuitch, a physician in Washington, DC, was convicted of criminal abortion for providing an abortion when the woman’s life was not endangered. In his defense, Vuitch argued that the Washington abortion law was unconstitutionally vague, meaning it failed to define health in terms clear enough so that doctors could be sure what actions violated the law. Though a lower district court agreed with Vuitch and struck down the law as unconstitutional, the Supreme Court later disagreed and overturned the decision. US v. Vuitch was one of the first US Supreme Court cases that challenged the constitutional validity of laws regulating abortion and set a precedent that helped determine future abortion cases, like Roe v. Wade in 1973, which made abortions more accessible and gave women more control over their bodies.