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.

More 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."

In 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.

Women leaders responded to his death by speaking out:

"Justice 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.

"Justice 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.

"Roe v. Wade, with its immeasurable positive consequences for the lives and health of women ... is surely a worthy legacy for any judge."
- Gloria Feldt, Planned Parenthood.

"He 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 Foundation.

Born 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.

Three 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 women’s 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."

Roe 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 women’s health, and after viability (in the third trimester) the state could limit abortion except when the woman’s life or health were threatened.

Roe 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 Roe’s reversal becoming imminent.

Bork 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."

The third abortion case decided during Blackmun’s 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 on abortion.

Blackmun recognized 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."

By 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.

Women’s reproductive freedom was not the only significant topic considered during Blackmun’s 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."

Dissenting 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."

A 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 of death."

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.

Harry Blackmun is survived by his wife, Dorothy, three daughters, Nancy, Sally and Susan, and five grandchildren.

We will also miss him.



updated October 17, 2007

Social 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 home
Welcome to Feminist Women's Health Center
Women's Health
Poetry and Prose by feminists
Your Stories-Real Life Personal Abortion Stories
Abortion info from Feminist Women's Health Center Birth Control Comparison
Teens - sexual health info
Women's Health Questions and Answers
Espanol - Spanish
Take Pro-Choice Action
News & Views
Resources: books, websites, organization
Abortion Clinics - Feminist Abortion Network For Sale - speculum, tools for self exam, books Links Site Index Search

Feminist Women's Health Center