Remembering Supreme Court Justice
Harry A. Blackmun
Every woman who has had a legal abortion since
1973 knows her life would have been completely and utterly different had her choice
been denied. And every woman who had an illegal abortion before 1973 realizes
how Roe vs Wade made abortion safe.
than anything, Harry A. Blackmun will be remembered for writing the landmark 1973
Supreme Court decision Roe vs. Wade that made abortion legal throughout the U.S.
Upon his retirement in 1994, he observed "It was a step that had to be
taken ... toward the full emancipation of women."
February, at age 90, Harry Blackmun fell at his home and the next day underwent
hip replacement surgery. Sadly, he never fully recovered from the surgery and
died March 4 due to complications. American women have truly lost a leader who
understood how fundamental to freedom is the right to make reproductive choices.
leaders responded to his death by speaking out:
Harry Blackmun was my hero. He never aspired to do what he did; but when faced
with a case that dramatically affected the lives and health of millions of American
women, he responded with courage and principle." - Janet Benshoof, Center
for Reproductive Law and Policy.
Blackmun saved more women's lives than any other person in our nation's history.
In supporting women's right to decide when and whether to have a child, the decision
he authored confirmed women's fundamental right to their own bodies and freedom."
- Gloria Steinem, Voters For Choice.
v. Wade, with its immeasurable positive consequences for the lives and health
of women ... is surely a worthy legacy for any judge."
- Gloria Feldt,
will go down in any 20th century analysis of the gains for women and the drive
for equality as a quiet unassuming giant." - Eleanor Smeal, Feminist Majority
in 1908, Harry Blackmun grew up in St. Paul, MN where his father owned a store.
He received a scholarship to Harvard College, majored in mathematics and graduated
with honors in 1929 then went on to Harvard Law School. "Harry worked his
way through Harvard by delivering milk and doing other odd jobs," according
to Beth Heifetz, a former law clerk, in an interview with the Washington Post.
With an interest in both medicine
and the law, Blackmun became legal counsel at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN.
He was appointed to the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals in 1959. In 1970 President
Nixon chose Blackmun for the U.S. Supreme Court. He was unanimously approved and
stayed there until he retired in 1994.
significant abortion cases came before the Supreme Court during his tenure. Roe
vs Wade was the first and most notable, forever changing the landscape
of womens lives. Blackmun wrote the decision on behalf of the 7-2 majority
declaring that the right to privacy "is broad enough to encompass a woman's
decision whether or not to terminate a pregnancy. The detriment that the state
would impose upon the pregnant woman by denying this choice is apparent."
vs Wade also established the trimester framework, holding that the government
could not interfere with abortion in the first trimester; that during the second
trimester, abortion could be regulated only to protect womens health, and
after viability (in the third trimester) the state could limit abortion except
when the womans life or health were threatened.
stood strong until 1988 when Justice Louis Powell, Jr. resigned from the Supreme
Court. Without Powell, the pro-choice majority was suddenly gone. Anti-abortion
President Reagan nominated Robert Bork and a huge controversy ensued because the
pro-choice movement saw Roes reversal becoming imminent.
was defeated. But the next year, the Supreme Court heard a case that presented
the first real opportunity to overturn Roe vs Wade. In the July 3, 1989 decision
known as Webster v. Reproductive Health Services, a 5-4 majority voted to allow
new regulations and restrictions but did not overturn Roe. Reading the mood of
the Court, Blackmun wrote in his opinion dissenting against restrictions. "I
fear for the future... The signs are evident and a chill wind blows."
third abortion case decided during Blackmuns term was Casey vs. Planned
Parenthood. Announced in June 1992, again in a 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court upheld
Roe while it weakened the standard by which courts must measure state restrictions
that just one vote stood between overturning Roe and sustaining it. "I
fear for the darkness as four Justices anxiously await the single vote necessary
to extinguish the light ... I cannot stay on this Court forever."
the end of 1992 however, pro-choice President Clinton was elected. Since then,
new Supreme Court justices have been appointed and the anti-choice justices have
not yet overturned Roe.
reproductive freedom was not the only significant topic considered during Blackmuns
24 years on the Supreme Court. In a 1986 case testing if the Constitution's right
to privacy protects private consensual homosexual conduct between adults, Blackmun
wrote of "the right to be let alone."
from the conservative majority, he said the fact that "individuals define
themselves in a significant way through their intimate sexual relationships with
others suggests, in a nation as diverse as ours, that there may be many 'right'
ways of conducting those relationships."
few months before his retirement, Harry Blackmun reversed his own personal precedent
by voting against the continued use of the death penalty. He had become convinced
it could not be applied equally and was unconstitutional. "I feel morally
and intellectually obligated simply to concede that the death penalty experiment
has failed. From this day forward, I no longer shall tinker with the machinery
In 1997, three
years after he retired from the Court, Blackmun played a cameo role in the movie
Amistad in which he played the role of Justice Joseph Story who read
the Supreme Court decision allowing African mutineers to be freed.
Blackmun is survived by his wife, Dorothy, three daughters, Nancy, Sally and Susan,
and five grandchildren.
will also miss him.
October 17, 2007
Justice is about equality. People who care about social justice work to strengthen
democracy and human rights, provide every child with an equal opportunity to flourish,
break down barriers between different groups of people, and build a healthy and
sustainable environment. Social justice requires transformation.
Feminist Women's Health Center