‘Roe v. Wade’ Appears Poised to Fall. These Documentaries Show How We Got Here.
Members of the public gather outside the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., on May 2, 2022, after a leaked draft majority opinion signaled the likely end of Roe v. Wade and nearly 50 years of abortion law. (Photo by STEFANI REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images)
The U.S. Supreme Court intends to overturn Roe v. Wade, according to a draft majority opinion Politico obtained and published May 2. Authored by Justice Samuel Alito in February, the draft opinion would override 50 years of legal precedent, striking down the landmark 1973 Supreme Court ruling that determined women have a fundamental right to an abortion, and instead would grant individual states the full authority to regulate or prohibit abortion.
“Roe was egregiously wrong from the start,” Alito wrote in his draft, which also takes aim at the 1992 Supreme Court ruling Planned Parenthood v. Casey. The opinion on the Mississippi-based case Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization could change before a final ruling is released in the coming months, Politico said, describing the publication of the draft as “unprecedented.”
On May 3, Chief Justice John Roberts confirmed the document’s authenticity, said that it did not represent a final court decision “or the final position of any member on the issues in the case,” and requested an investigation into the leak, which he called a “singular and egregious” breach of trust.
These developments follow a decades-long effort by U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and conservative allies to secure an ideological majority on the Supreme Court — a successful push FRONTLINE chronicled in the 2020 documentary Supreme Revenge: Battle for the Court.
Since its first season in 1983, FRONTLINE has been covering the battle over abortion at both the national and state levels. In documentaries and related reporting, we’ve tracked developments related to this contentious issue — including, in recent years, the Mississippi law at the center of the draft Supreme Court decision and the ways states have prepared for a potential post-Roe v. Wade world.
Revisit the documentaries below to understand how America reached this moment.
Abortion Clinic (1983)
A decade after Roe v. Wade, FRONTLINE visited an abortion clinic in Pennsylvania, covering the conflict over reproductive rights like never before on American television. The documentary featured the perspectives of women with unplanned pregnancies, as well as people who worked inside the clinic and members of the community who protested outside.
Murder on Abortion Row (1996)
In 1994, John Salvi, a radical young abortion opponent, opened fire on two clinics in Brookline, Massachusetts, just outside Boston, and killed two women: Shannon Lowney, a receptionist at Planned Parenthood, and Lee Ann Nichols, who worked as a receptionist at PreTerm, the clinic down the street. The documentary explores how the killings ignited a fierce debate about the intersection of free speech, abortion and religion and contributed to a Massachusetts law allowing a 35-foot buffer zone around abortion clinics that would be struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2014.
The Last Abortion Clinic (2005)
Several decades after Roe v. Wade, the anti-abortion movement had successfully spearheaded campaigns in multiple states, passing laws that limited access to abortion — including in Mississippi, where a single facility performing abortions remained.
The 2005 documentary traced those state laws back to how anti-abortion advocates had seized on Planned Parenthood v. Casey — the 1992 Supreme Court decision that upheld Roe v. Wade but changed the standard by which abortion laws were judged. Casey allowed states to restrict access, so long as they did not place an “undue burden” on women seeking the procedure.
The film tracked abortion opponents’ actions: lobbying state legislatures, looking to see where courts drew the line on what constituted an undue burden, then seeking to incrementally restrict abortion access within those evolving parameters.
Anti-Abortion Crusaders: Inside the African-American Abortion Battle (2017)
In this short documentary, FRONTLINE followed a group of African American anti-abortion activists and their work inside the Black community. The centerpiece of their message: “The most dangerous place for an African American child is in the womb.”
The Abortion Divide (2019)
Thirty-six years after FRONTLINE released 1983’s Abortion Clinic, the documentary’s producer returned to Pennsylvania to find a community more bitterly divided than ever. With intimate access, The Abortion Divide featured interviews with women with unplanned pregnancies, doctors and nurses who provided abortions, and those who counseled women against the procedure.
The documentary also reported on the increase in clinic invasions and threats. And in addition to offering a deeply personal window into choices the women faced in unplanned pregnancies, the film examined the steadfast belief of the anti-abortion community that there should be no choice at all.
Supreme Revenge: Battle for the Court (2020)
With the confirmation of Justice Amy Coney Barrett days before the 2020 presidential election, conservatives secured a 6-3 majority on the Supreme Court — and the chance to shape American life and policy, including abortion rights, for a generation. This documentary, accompanied by dozens of in-depth interviews published as part of the FRONTLINE Transparency Project, examined then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s decades-long campaign to transform the nation’s highest court and its profound implications.
Correction: This story originally stated that Roe v. Wade was decided in 1972. It was updated to reflect the correct year.