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Civil Liberties in the United States

Right to Privacy and the U.S. Constitution

Right to Privacy

The right to privacy is not enumerated in the Constitution, but has been inferred to exist through the provisions of several amendments and has been the basis of key judicial rulings regarding birth control and abortion.

The right to privacy—the right to carry out certain activities without legal or governmental interference—was the basis for controversial rulings on contraception and abortion. It also extends to other issues, such as physician-assisted suicide. One of the most important cases in this area was Griswold v. Connecticut (1965). Estelle Griswold, a leader of the organization Planned Parenthood, had been convicted under a Connecticut law that forbade providing married couples with information and advice about birth control. In a 7–2 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that various amendments in the Bill of Rights, including the 1st, 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 9th, implicitly establish a right to privacy. The Connecticut law, under which Griswold was convicted, conflicted with this right and was therefore unconstitutional.

Over the next decade, the Supreme Court expanded the right to privacy in several notable cases. For example, in Eisenstadt v. Baird (1972) the justices ruled that states could not ban the use of contraceptives by anyone, not just married couples.

Perhaps the most famous—and controversial—case that used the right to privacy as a basis for the decision was Roe v. Wade (1973), in which the Supreme Court held that states could not legally regulate or restrict abortion in the first trimester. The Supreme Court ruled by a 7–2 majority that a woman's constitutional right to privacy, in most instances, outweighed any interest of a state in regulating abortions. The Roe v. Wade decision was the focal point of public debate and challenged repeatedly in subsequent decades. One such challenge came in Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey (1992), in which the Supreme Court narrowly upheld (by a vote of 5–4) a number of restrictions on the right to an abortion, for example, a requirement that minors must obtain parental consent. In its decision, the Supreme Court established a new standard for the evaluation of state laws restricting abortion. Called the "undue burden" test, this standard assessed state laws to determine whether they placed a substantial obstacle in the path of a woman seeking an abortion.