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Imagine being a 17-year-old girl who just got pregnant…from rape. Do you really think that this underaged girl, who has already gone through so much trauma, would want to have the child of her rapist? Pregnancy is one of the most exciting things that could happen to a woman, but this excitement can be ripped away if the baby was not something planned. A woman should have the right of choice as to whether or not the baby should be kept. This is what Supreme Court Justice Harry A. Blackmun believed in the Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade, where the Supreme Court ruled that underlying restrictive state regulations of abortion are unconstitutional. Harry A. Blackmun was one of the most liberal justices on the court who argue and won the Roe v. Wade case because of his passion for his own beliefs and his personal upbringing.
McCorvey was born on November 12, 1908, in Nashville, Illinois. He had a younger sister born in 1917 and a brother who died at a young age. Blackmun grew up in Dayton’s Bluff, a neighborhood in Saint Paul, Minnesota. He graduated from Harvard University in 1929 with a degree in mathematics. While at Harvard, Blackmun joined a Fraternity and sang with the Harvard Glee Club. While in the Glee Club, he performed for President Herbert Hoover, which was Blackmun’s first visit to Washington. He attended Harvard Law School graduating with a Bachelor of Laws in 1932. He served in a variety of positions including private counsel, law clerk, and adjunct faculty at the University of Minnesota Law School and William Mitchell College of Law. Blackmun practiced as an attorney at the law firm now known as Dorsey & Whitney focused in its early years on taxation, trusts and estates, and civil litigation. He married Dorothy Clark in 1941 and had three daughters, Nancy, Sally, and Susan. Before going into law, Blackmun wanted to be a doctor. From 1950-1959, motivated by his initial passion for medicine, Blackmun served as resident counsel for the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. He would later describe his time at Mayo as ‘his happiest time’. He pursued his career in law because he wanted a “stable career”.
His time at the clinic got President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s attention to replace Sanborn’s seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit in 1959. The eight circuits included states such as Arkansas, Nebraska, and Missouri. Which is why it made sense that Blackmun started out as a conservative viewpoint on the court. His opinions on the court ranged from taxation to the discrimination of citizens and prisoners. It was clear that from his decisions in the court that he was interested in touching up the main law of the land: the constitution. On April 14, 1970, Blackmun was nominated to the Supreme Court by President Nixon. His nomination was approved unanimously. Due to the fact that Blackmun was new, he was quiet at the beginning about his opinions as he was trying to create a voice for himself. He often voted in accordance with Chief Justice Burger. As time went on in the court, he began to grow more liberal in his beliefs. As Blackmun became more independent, his friendship with Chief Justice Burger fizzled out. The two were once referred to as the Minnesota Twins; but eventually, Blackmun grew frustrated with Burger’s style of managing the Court. While others on the court focused more on the hypothetical, Blackmun’s view on lawful decision making was practical and realistic. Blackmun had empathy for the citizens who were going to be affected by the decisions of the law while the others were focused on the finish line. Blackmun’s growing determinant nature is illustrated in his opinion in Roe v. Wade.
The supreme court is a branch of the U.S. government that handles federal decisions of the law. Their duty is to interpret cases and contrast them with the ideology of the constitution. The supreme court does not have a definite number of how many justices are active. Throughout time, the court has ranged from 6-9 participating members. At the time of Blackmun, the court had 9 members which made the Roe v. Wade case so controversial. Blackmun changed the court dynamics. If there are 9 participating supreme court justice members, then there will be an imbalance of left to right viewpoints on cases. If five of the justices are a right view, then the left will be the minority in the decisions of the law. By Blackmun changing his viewpoint from right to left, this massive shift got the citizens worried.
In 1970, Plaintiff Jane Roe, whose real name later came out as Norma McCorvey, instituted federal action against Henry Wade, the district attorney of Dallas County, Texas, where Roe resided. She wanted to terminate her pregnancy, however, the Supreme Court did not agree with this decision. Blackmun claimed that anti-abortion interfered with a woman’s right to privacy and the Supreme Court argued that abortion goes against the fourteenth amendment. The Fourteenth Amendment states “nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law”. Blackmun spent a lot of time developing his opinion, drawing from his experience at the Mayo Clinic. Blackmun led the Court in the decision to rule in favor of abortion, presenting an opinion that was both controversial and unexpected from the former conservative that he was. Blackmun was the balance that the court needed at the time. As he shifted from the right to the left side, others were resistant to the unforeseen change.
Another major reason that influenced Blackmun’s ruling on pro-abortion had to do with his daughter, Sally. In 1966, Sally, who, at the time was a sophomore in college, found out she was pregnant. Sally eventually dropped out of Skidmore College and married her 20-year-old boyfriend. Sally talked about her decisions moving forward when she found out she was pregnant saying, “it was a decision that I might have made differently, had Roe v. Wade been around.” This had a major impact on Blackmun’s opinion of abortion because his daughter was a teenager who couldn’t have an abortion because, at the time, it was illegal. This could potentially be a reason why he became more liberal as the years went by.
The Supreme Court case, Roe v Wade, was based on precedent. Blackmun provided history of abortion by mentioning that abortion was ‘resorted to without scruple’ in Greek and Roman times. Blackmun also mentioned how, in the United States, in 1821, Connecticut passed the first state statute criminalizing abortion. Every state had abortion legislation by 1900. In the United States, abortion was sometimes considered a common-law crime, though Justice Blackmun would conclude that the criminalization of abortion did not have ‘roots in the English common-law tradition.” Rather than arresting the women having the abortions, legal officials were more likely to interrogate these women to obtain evidence against the abortion provider in order to close down that provider’s business.
In 1971, Shirley Wheeler was charged with manslaughter after Florida hospital staff reported her illegal abortion to the police. She received a sentence of two years’ probation and, under her probation, had to move back into her parents’ house in North Carolina. The Boston Women’s Abortion Coalition held a rally for Wheeler in Boston to raise money and awareness of her charges as well as had staff members from the Women’s National Abortion Action Coalition (WONAAC) speak at the rally. Wheeler was possibly the first woman to be held criminally responsible for submitting to an abortion. Her conviction was overturned by the Florida Supreme Court.
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