David G. Savage: Roe's Ruling: More Than Its Author Intended





In mid-1971, the Supreme Court agreed for the first time to hear a constitutional challenge to the long-standing state laws limiting abortion. Its decision to do so reverberates today.

At that time, Texas and 30 other states had laws, dating from the 19th century, that made an abortion a crime unless it was performed to save the mother's life.

Georgia, like California, had revised its laws in the late 1960s to permit abortion in specific circumstances: if the mother's health was endangered, if the pregnancy was caused by rape or if the fetus had a severe defect.

The newest member of the Supreme Court, Justice Harry A. Blackmun, saw much to like in the revised abortion laws. A lawyer who greatly admired doctors, he had been general counsel for the Mayo Clinic in his home state of Minnesota before becoming a federal appellate judge.

He believed that doctors needed to have leeway to do medically necessary abortions. In the court's first private conference on the issue, he described Georgia's law as "a fine statute [that] strikes a balance that is fair."

Yet, a year later, Blackmun wrote an opinion for the court that struck down all of the nation's abortion laws. Equally important, his opinion made virtually all abortions legal as a matter of a constitutional right.

That opinion, in the case of Roe vs. Wade, remains the court's most disputed decision of recent decades. By abruptly voiding all laws against abortion, it galvanized a powerful antiabortion movement that has transformed American politics.

It also dominates public debate over the court and its future. The Senate confirmation hearing for Judge John G. Roberts Jr., like those of all recent nominees, is focusing on one question: Will he vote to uphold or to reverse Roe vs. Wade?

[Editor's Notes: This is a lengthy story, available in full on the LA Times website.]
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