Reproductive Freedom and the Right to Choose

A person's decisions regarding his or her personal life are none of the government's business under the Bill of Rights of the United States Constitution.10 min read


ACLU Briefing Paper Number 15

"Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude ... shall exist within the United States." -- The Thirteenth Amendment

The Bill of Rights of the United States Constitution guarantees individuals the right to personal autonomy, which means that a person's decisions regarding his or her personal life are none of the government's business. That right, which is part of the right to privacy, encompasses decisions about parenthood, including a woman's right to decide for herself whether to complete or terminate a pregnancy, as well as the right to use contraception, freedom from forced sterilization and freedom from employment discrimination based on childbearing capacity.

History of the Right To Choose

As early as 1923, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution protects personal decisions regarding marriage and the family from governmental intrusion. In 1965, the Court ruled that a state cannot prohibit a married couple from practicing contraception. In 1972, it extended the right to use birth control to all people, married or single. And in its 1973 ruling in Roe v. Wade, the Court held that the Constitution's protections of privacy as a fundamental right encompass a woman's decision to have an abortion.

The Roe decision, which legalized abortion nationwide, led to a dramatic improvement in the lives and health of women. Before Roe, women experiencing unwanted or crisis pregnancies faced the perils and indignities of self-induced abortion, back-alley abortion, or forced childbirth. Today, Roe protects the right of women to make life choices in keeping with their conscience or religious beliefs, consistent with American tradition. And by relieving American women of the burden of unwanted pregnancies, Roe has permitted them to pursue economic opportunities on a more equal basis with men.