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Roe vs. Wade (1989) - Overview, Synopsis, Critique

abortion court ellen sarah

Principal social themes: abortion, women’s rights, suicide/depression

Mannheim. No MPAA rating. Featuring: Holly Hunter, Amy Madigan, Terry O’Quinn, James Gannon, Kathy Bates, Chris Mulkey, Annabella Price, Dion Anderson, David Wohl, Micole Mercurio, and George Murdock. Written by Alison Cross. Cinematography by Tom Sigel. Edited by Elodie Keene and Joann Fogle. Music by Snuffy Walden. Produced and directed by Gregory Hoblit. Color. 96 minutes.


Roe vs. Wade is an oddly constructed telefilm, half a folksy character drama and half a dry, courtroom chess match that concentrates on the background and legal maneuvering behind the controversial Supreme Court decision that secured the rights of women to terminate a pregnancy. The two halves of the film do not always blend, but the picture provides a solid airing of the major arguments for and against abortion. Roe vs. Wade initially aired on NBC May 15, 1989.


Roe vs. Wade opens at a carnival in Texas, where Ellen Russell (Holly Hunter) works as a sideshow barker. She telephones her mother with news that she is pregnant. Her mother, who is custodian of Cheryl, Ellie’s baby daughter, is unsympathetic, so Ellie moves in with her father, who is more supportive. She tells him that she wants an abortion, which is illegal in Texas. She visits a doctor and concocts a story that she was raped, but that makes no difference in terms of the state law. Eventually she is recommended to two lawyers, Sarah Weddington (Amy Madigan) and Linda Coffee, who need a plaintiff for a lawsuit in a test case to change the abortion restriction in the state. Ellie agrees to serve as plaintiff, signing her complaint on April 20, 1970, using the alias of Jane Roe in her suit against the district attorney of Dallas, Henry Wade, for enforcing the laws forbidding abortion. Meanwhile, Assistant Attorney General Jay Floyd (Terry O’Quinn) is assigned to represent the state in the case before the district court. After lively oral arguments, the court issues a compromise ruling, declaring abortion legal but not issuing an injunction to enforce their decision. The end result is that Ellen is still unable to receive an abortion. Her lawyers plan to ask the U.S. Supreme Court for injunctive relief, but they inform Ellie that the procedure would take over a year, far too late to help her. The story then divides between Ellie’s personal life and the wrangling of the lawyers involved in the case. Disappointed, Ellie moves in with a friend (Kathy Bates) and awaits the birth of her child, which she gives up for adoption. She attempts suicide, but her father discovers her unconscious when he stops by for a visit, and he cares for her, thinking she has passed out from too many drinks. She recovers and tries to get on with her life.

Linda reluctantly has to pull out of the case due to her workload, leaving Sarah to handle it by herself with the help of Ron, her husband, and another lawyer volunteer. In his preparations for the Supreme Court, Floyd decides to concentrate on the humanity of the unborn fetus. As time to file the final brief nears, Ron suggests the use of several technical legal concepts besides a woman’s right to privacy. The Fourteenth Amendment, for example, uses the phrase, “all person’s born or naturalized,” therefore not recognizing the fetus as having any rights. Miscarriages do not need death certificates. Floyd also prepares a technical argument, namely that the case is moot since due to the passage of time, “Jane Roe” is no longer pregnant. Since Sarah has only limited experience arguing before the bench, it is suggested that an experienced litigator, Terry Beaumont, be used to argue the case. Sarah decides to let Ellen make the decision as to who should represent her and travels to speak with her. Ellen insists that Sarah represent her. Before the Court, Sarah makes a strong, rational case and is responsive to queries from the Justices. Floyd, however, is thrown off stride when his moot case argument is rejected. He replies weakly to several questions by Justice Thurgood Marshall. In January 1973, the Court issues their ruling, a 7–2 compromise that basically legalizes abortion during the first six months of pregnancy. Ellen tells the friend she lives with that she is actually Jane Roe.


A curious mixture, Roe vs. Wade attempts to outline clearly the arguments in the legal battle that resulted in the famous Supreme Court decision. Fearing that a dry courtroom battle would not hold the viewer’s interest, the script loads the personal story of Ellen with colorful but hokey touches that are somewhat fictionalized. Of these scenes, the most memorable one is her suicide attempt and her relationship with her father, who always treats her with respect. The legal portion of the film, however, remains basically accurate. Viewers interested in the issue of abortion will find this section of the film more meaningful. A number of intriguing arguments are brought to light, such as the fact that abortion was legal when the Constitution was originally drawn up and antiabortion laws by the states only started to appear in the nineteenth century. Both Terry O’Quinn and Amy Madigan are excellent as the opposing lawyers, both emotionally committed to their case and both believing that their position is the one that would actually save lives. The script respects both of their deeply felt attitudes, and since the film ends with a special acknowledgment to the real-life Sarah Weddington and Jay Floyd, they undoubtedly cooperated in the making of the picture. The scrawl at the end of the film refers to Webster vs. Reproductive Services , a later case that refined some of the loose ends of the Roe vs. Wade decision. Another provocative development is the changing attitude of the real-life Ellen Russell, who later adopted a pro-life viewpoint. A study of the reasons behind this shift would make an interesting study.

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