January 22, 1973: The "Other Roe" Case Expands Abortion Rights.


In December 1971, two lawyers argued for women’s abortion rights in separate cases before the Supreme Court. Texan Sarah Weddington represented "Roe" and Georgian Margie Pitt Hames represented a woman known to the court as "Doe." Unofficially, the lawyers also represented a popular movement by feminists, civil rights activists and medical professionals to make abortion legal.

Four states had already repealed their laws against abortion and 13 had passed reforms. After more than a year’s deliberation, and by a 7-2 vote, the court announced on Jan. 22, 1973 that it supported the plaintiffs in both cases. Roe v. Wade became famous among supporters and opponents as the touchstone for legal abortion, but Doe v. Bolton, perhaps even more far-reaching at the time, remains less well known.

The case revolved around Sandra Cano, a pregnant woman who, along with her intermittently employed husband, had been unable to support her three children. Two of them had been placed in foster care and the third was up for adoption. Georgia’s restrictive laws required permission from a panel of doctors and hospital officials before a pregnancy could be terminated, and permitted them only to state residents and only when the woman’s health was at risk. Cano’s suit was joined by 23 others, including nine licensed doctors and seven nurses.

Margie Pitts Hames was a civil rights activist whose first cases were against school segregation and who would continue to fight for women’s rights–and against the death penalty–until her death in 1995. While Weddington argued Roe on the grounds of the right to privacy, Hames focused her legal strategy on the 14th Amendment, which guarantees citizens a hearing ("due process") before they can be deprived of any of their rights. The Supreme Court’s majority agreed that restrictions like those in Georgia had "no rational connection with a patient’s needs" and expanded the definition of health to include a woman’s mental state–her "well-being"–during her pregnancy.

As anti-abortion forces fought back with increasing efficacy over three ensuing decades, both landmark cases took the same stunning turn. Like Norma McCorvey, a.k.a. "Roe," Sandra Cano, the "Doe" plaintiff, became an opponent of abortion. In 2000, she filed court papers claiming that attorney Hames had misled her and that she had never wanted an abortion. Her suit to undo Doe is still rattling around in the circuit courts.

Louise Bernikow is the author of seven books and numerous magazine articles. She travels to campuses and community groups with a lecture and slide show about activism called "The Shoulders We Stand On: Women as Agents of Change." She can be reached at [email protected].


For more information:

Doe v. Bolton 1973 Supreme Court decision:

Roe v Wade 1973 Supreme Court decision:

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