What Did the Court Intend Roe v. Wade to Mean?

What Did the Court Intend Roe v. Wade to Mean?

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.
October 5, 2005

Just a couple of weeks ago, David Savage of The Los Angeles Times wrote a most interesting article on Roe v. Wade, the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion on demand. The article seems to have attracted little attention, and that is a shame.

The article was based largely on the newly-released papers of Justice Harry Blackmun, author of the majority opinion in the infamous case and its twin, Doe v. Bolton, released the same day.

Among the findings:

Last year, on the fifth anniversary of Blackmun’s death, the Library of Congress opened his papers to the public. His thick files on the abortion cases tell the little-known story of how Roe vs. Wade came to be. It is the story of a rookie justice, unsure of himself and his abilities, who set out to write a narrow ruling that would reform abortion laws, not repeal them.

It is also the story of a sometimes rudderless court led by Chief Justice Warren Burger. On the day the ruling was announced, Burger said, “Plainly, the court today rejects any claim that the Constitution requires abortion on demand.”

Blackmun proposed to issue a news release to accompany the decision, issued Jan. 22, 1973. “I fear what the headlines may be,” he wrote in a memo. His statement, never issued, emphasized that the court was not giving women “an absolute right to abortion,” nor was it saying that the “Constitution compels abortion on demand.”

In reality, the court did just that.

More: The justices did not foresee the full impact of the ruling or the backlash it would set off, said Georgetown University law professor Mark V. Tushnet, who was a clerk for Justice Thurgood Marshall when Roe was decided. They focused on striking down the Texas-type laws that outlawed all abortions, he said.

“All they wanted was to get those laws off the books,” Tushnet said. “They were not thinking long-term with an overall vision.”

The article offers important and credible information about how the abortion decisions arrived in their final form.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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