1992 June 29

Supreme Court Preserves Right to Abortion; Defines “Undue Burden” Standard


In Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the Court upheld four restrictions on abortion in a Pennsylvania law, invalidated one, but preserved the basic right to an abortion. The decision surprised many observers, who thought the Court would very likely use the case as an opportunity to overturn Roe v. Wade (January 22, 1973). The coalition of Justices Sandra Day O’Connor, David Souter and Anthony Kennedy established a new standard for evaluating abortion restrictions, holding that they could not place an “undue burden” on access to abortions.

Many Court observers credit Justice O’Connor with putting together the centrist coalition, which also played an important role in other cases. After O’Connor retired, Justice Kennedy became more likely to vote with the other conservative justices, thereby shifting the Court in a more conservative direction in a number of close 5–4 decisions.

The “undue burden” test became the principal rationale in the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down a very restrictive abortion law on June 27, 2016 in Women’s Whole Health v. Hellerstedt.

Learn more at a timeline on abortion cases in the Supreme Court: http://www.pewforum.org/2013/01/16/a-history-of-key-abortion-rulings-of-the-us-supreme-court/

Listen to the oral argument in the case: http://www.oyez.org/cases/1990-1999/1991/1991_91_744

Read: Joan Biskupic, Sandra Day O’Connor: How the First Woman on the Supreme Court Became Its Most Influential Justice (2005)

Learn more: Jeffrey Toobin, The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court (2007)

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