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Due process and the right to privacy: lesson overview

A high-level overview of the right to privacy, including the decision in *Roe v. Wade*.
The Supreme Court has ruled that the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment prevents state governments from infringing on the right to privacy.

Key terms

due process clauseThe Fourteenth Amendment clause guaranteeing that no state shall “deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” The Supreme Court has interpreted the due process clause to provide for “selective incorporation” of amendments into the states, meaning that neither the states nor the federal government may abridge individual rights protected by the Constitution.
“penumbra” of privacyDerived from the Latin for “partial shadow.” The Supreme Court has ruled that several amendments in the Bill of Rights cast a “penumbra” of the right to privacy, although the right to privacy itself is never explicitly named. For example, the Court has interpreted that the Fourth Amendment right of the people to be secure in their houses from unreasonable searches and seizures implies a right to privacy in the home.
right to privacyThe right to “be left alone,” or to be free of government scrutiny into one’s private beliefs and behavior.

Cases to know

Roe v. Wade (1973) - Norma McCorvey, called by the alias Jane Roe in the court proceedings, wished to terminate her pregnancy but found she could not do so safely or legally in the state of Texas. In the resulting Supreme Court case, the Court ruled that a woman’s decision to have an abortion in the first trimester of pregnancy fell under the right of privacy and thus was protected by the Constitution. The Court did permit limits on abortion in the second and third trimesters of pregnancy.

Key takeaways from this lesson

Balancing liberty and order - Although there’s no enumerated “right to privacy” in the Bill of Rights, since the 1960s the Supreme Court has held that several amendments create a “penumbra” of privacy for individuals’ private beliefs and conduct. In Roe v. Wade, the Court extended the right of privacy to the decision to have an abortion. The right to privacy is not unlimited, however: the decision in Roe recognized that the government may regulate abortion in the second and third trimesters of pregnancy due to compelling state interests in maternal health and potential life.

Review questions

What is the right to privacy? What aspects of everyday life does it include?
Why did the Court reason that certain amendments in the Bill of Rights cast a “penumbra of privacy”? Do you agree with its reasoning? Why or why not?

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