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Choosing a Chief Justice

Roe Ruling: More Than Its Author Intended

September 14, 2005|David G. Savage | Times Staff Writer

In retrospect, this proved to be a crucial time in the court's handling of the abortion issue. Blackmun had proposed issuing a short opinion that would have struck down the Texas law and the 30 others like it. However, it would have also left the states ample room to revise their laws.

His proposal set off a flurry of memos on what to do next.

Justices William O. Douglas and William J. Brennan, mindful that Nixon's new appointees would join the deliberations if the cases were reargued in the fall, wanted quick action and a stronger opinion.

Burger, however, wanted to go slowly. He knew the Brennan-led majority was about to announce the striking down of the death penalty on a 5-4 vote. Burger and Blackmun had dissented, as had the new Nixon appointees, Powell and Rehnquist. Burger expected the votes on abortion to line up the same way.

If the abortion cases were carried over until the fall, Powell and Rehnquist would cast their votes, and the chief justice -- with Blackmun and White also on board -- could envision a new 5-4 majority that would uphold most of the state abortion laws.

"This is as sensitive and difficult an issue as any in this court in my time," Burger wrote. "Hence, I vote to reargue early in the next term."

A Miscalculation

But Burger miscalculated by seeking a delay. Had Blackmun's draft opinion been adopted, it would have left states free to prohibit abortions for nonmedical reasons. However, Blackmun reluctantly joined Burger in seeking a delay, and the majority voted to put off a decision on the abortion cases until the fall.

Blackmun spent the summer working in the Mayo Clinic's library in Minnesota. He researched the history of abortion in Persian, Greek and Roman times. He also studied abortion laws adopted in 19th century America and concluded that the bans were driven not by moral imperatives but by the reality that, before antibiotics, abortion -- like other medical procedures -- was dangerous.

When Blackmun returned to Washington, he had a long draft. It was a thorough work of medical history, but short on constitutional law. It also was hazy on just when abortion would be permitted or prohibited.

In October, the nine justices sat through the arguments again. When they met to discuss the cases, there was a surprise. Powell, the soft-spoken Virginian who was new to the court, firmly supported a woman's right to abortion. He urged Blackmun to say it directly rather than attack the laws as vague.

For Powell, the issue was personal: When he was a lawyer in Richmond, Va., a young man came to him in despair. His pregnant girlfriend had tried to abort her fetus with his help, and she had bled to death. Powell went to the authorities to explain what happened. Thereafter, he was determined to see abortion made safe and legal.

Suddenly, there were six solid votes to strike down the Texas and Georgia laws, and Blackmun had the backing to write a broader opinion in favor of a right to abortion. The liberals, who had worried about the delay, found they had a stronger hand, and Burger found himself with no room to maneuver.

On Nov. 21, two weeks after Nixon's reelection, Blackmun sent around revised drafts of the majority opinions. The Roe opinion said that for the first three months of a pregnancy, states must "leave the abortion decision to the best medical judgment of the pregnant woman's attending physician."

In a memo to his colleagues, however, he voiced uncertainty.

"This has proved for me to be both difficult and elusive.... You will observe that I have concluded that the end of the first trimester is critical," he wrote, referring to a cutoff date for permitting abortions. "This is arbitrary, but perhaps any other selected point, such as quickening or viability, is equally arbitrary." The first trimester is the first three months of a pregnancy.

Brennan, Marshall and Powell wrote back to say that allowing abortions until "viability" -- when a fetus has developed enough to live outside the womb -- at six months made more sense.

Douglas disagreed. "I favor the first trimester, rather than viability," he said. He was outvoted, however, and Blackmun said he would revise the opinion over the Christmas holidays. In his final draft, states were told they could not restrict abortions through the second trimester.

That change would become the focus of today's legal and political battles. Opponents have especially condemned a procedure they call partial-birth abortion, which usually takes place in the fifth or sixth month of a pregnancy.

Blackmun's opinion ends by saying: "The decision vindicates the right of the physician to administer medical treatment according to his professional judgment.... The abortion decision in all its aspects is inherently, and primarily, a medical decision.... If an individual practitioner abuses the privilege of exercising proper medical judgment, the usual remedies, judicial and intra-professional, are available."

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