On January 22, 1973, Roe v Wade nationalized the abortion rights many states had already legalized. In 1983, the NY Times published a 10th anniversary interview with Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, Roe’s author. In that interview Blackmun’s emotional candor underscored the rarity of a Justice speaking directly to us. He recalled hate mail received after Roe – calling him the “Butcher of Dachau.” He dreamed of retirement.
Then CEO of Planned Parenthood of RI, I realized we likely had never thanked him. I reached for my letterhead and penned a note.
I wrote that he was a savior to women who—for centuries—had suffered under legislated forced pregnancy. I begged him to, “never retire until the current [Reagan] administration fades into political oblivion.”
Days later I was stunned by his response. Justice Blackmun thanked me as “someone on the cutting edge of this issue.” He wrote, “I am in your debt.”
His letter still hangs on my bedroom wall.
Forty-five years since Roe breathed life into gender equity for women, we remember the quiet man who codified privacy.
Son of modest parents from America’s heartland, Blackmun brought to the Supreme Court a brilliant legal mind and the unique healthcare knowhow decades as legal counsel to the Mayo Clinic provided. Devoted husband and father, he was best man to Chief Justice Burger who lobbied for Blackmun’s eventual high court appointment. (Lifelong friendship, notwithstanding, Blackmun avoided Burger’s arch-conservatism.)
One of Blackmun’s three daughters faced an unintended college pregnancy, and married the father of her child. That marriage ended in divorce. Blackmun treated with dignity every human being he met, friend and foe. Younger, uber-conservative William Rehnquist-- eventual Chief -- was a fan. Rare among Justices, Blackmun drove his blue VW Beatle to daily breakfasts with his clerks. (In his 1999 funeral procession, a blue Beatle rode proudly.)
Blackmun took his responsibility to the law seriously knowing how personally important and stressful unintended pregnancy decisions are. He researched tirelessly the historic right to privacy which, though implied in the Bill of Rights, came into its own in the Griswold decision on contraception argued from the 1940’s and finally decided in 1965.
This hugely important validation of the intimate rights of women and the people who love them were Blackmun’s gift. 45 years later, too many of us still remember pre-Roe women hemorrhaging and delirious, from fevers and infections after illegal abortions which sometimes included pre-surgery sexual favors demanded by “doctors” as partial “payment.”
We recall beloved women looking 75 at age 35, their health and spirit decimated by raising more children than they ever wanted or could care for adequately. Attempts to self-abort involved coat hangers. One metropolitan ER’s more graphic case cited a vacuum cleaner hose as the cause of death.
Such was the despair of women before Roe.
Eliminating access to services women need and want will never suffocate their determination to free themselves from enslavement by forced pregnancies. We are resolute!
My successor, Planned Parenthood of Southern New England President and CEO, Amanda Skinner, reminds us, “Opponents bet we are too tired and demoralized to keep fighting: we continue to prove them wrong. We will never stop fighting for a woman’s right to access vital reproductive health services, including safe and legal abortion. Our vision is a world of equity, where reproductive rights are basic human rights whoever you are or wherever you live. Together, fighting side-by-side, we shall prevail.”
Justice Blackmun would expect us to remind today’s Supreme Court-- and all of you-- to stand our hard-fought ground.