My old legal ethics (Yeah, I know, attorneys are taught ethics?) professor, Ron Rotunda, has a fascinating opinion piece in the Chicago Tribune recalling a time in 1994 when he was in a small group that heard the late Justice Harry Blackmun defend his decision in Roe v. Wade:
Blackmun said Justice Byron White wrote a bitter dissent, referring to “raw judicial power.” With a strong emphasis in his voice, Blackmun quipped: “I made Byron eat those words later in other cases.” When White announced his dissent, “White was emotional.” Blackmun asked rhetorically: “Why was White so strong against my view? His upbringing in modest circumstances? Or his wife’s influence?”
It did not occur to Blackmun that White based his dissent on the court’s precedent. Blackmun said, “We tried to decide the case on a constitutional basis, not a moral basis.” Blackmun did not give that presumption to White.
Another Blackmun disclosure: “To date, I’ve gotten almost 70,000 letters on Roe. I have read almost all of them.” He said many letters are “abusive” and he was amazed that many people objected to his decision. “Shortly after I spoke in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, I was picketed. I was surprised.”
The Constitution gives federal judges lifetime appointments, so that they don’t feel compelled to follow public opinion in deciding cases. Blackmun, however, apparently did follow it. He was pleased that a “New York Times editorial was in favor,” but noted that letters to the editor “were divided.”
Roe “protected the woman’s right, with the physician, to get an abortion.” Blackmun emphasized the italicized phrase with his voice. He spoke of the case as a doctor’s rights case, not a woman’s right case. In Roe, Blackmun said, for the first trimester, “the attending physician, in consultation with his patient, is free to determine, without regulation by the state, that, in his medical judgment, the patient’s pregnancy should be terminated.” Note that the right was the right of the physician, whom Blackmun assumed was male.
Blackmun explicitly rejected the argument that “one has an unlimited right to do with one’s body as one pleases.” Instead, in Roe, Blackmun cited, with approval, Buck v. Bell, a 1927 case that approved of compulsory sterilization. Continue Reading