The Author of the Roe v. Wade Opinion: A Man of Faith Who Saw Compassion in the Bible and the Constitution

The current tension over the issue of abortion made me think about the man who wrote the Supreme Court decision defining the legality of abortion in the United States.

The man was Harry A. Blackmun, U.S. Supreme Court Justice from 1970-1994. He was also an active member of the Metropolitan Memorial Methodist Church in D.C. during that time.

That’s where I attended church, too, and was married there in 1986.

I saw that Justice Blackmun attended (he sat toward the front where I could see him from the choir loft) but I never thought it would be appropriate to actually talk with him. Of course, I wish I had.

He delivered sermons there twice at the invitation of the pastor, and Paul and I were there for one of them. The sermons were on the occasion of the 200th anniversary of the U.S. Constitution in 1987 and to mark Mother’s Day in 1992.

Dena S. Davis, a faculty member of the Cleveland-Marshall College of Law in Cleveland, Ohio, published an essay in 2006 on those two sermons, entitled, “Moral Ambition: The Sermons of Harry A. Blackmun.”

She wrote of the mind of Justice Blackmun and the thread that ran though his legal writings and these two sermons: compassion and justice. Harold Koh, one of his clerks, called Blackmun “the spokesman for the have-nots, the excluded, the discrete and insular minorities.”

The 1987 sermon was entitled “In Recognition of the Imperfect,” noting the continuing work to make the U.S. Constitution a more perfect guide. He spoke of “1) our indebtedness to those who have gone before; 2) our being the beneficiaries of their, not our own, wisdom and efforts; and 3) our indebtedness to God, for wisdom itself is a part of God’s creation and beneficence.”

His sermons had numbered points he wanted to make, just like the Supreme Court opinions.

He talked of the imperfections of the Constitution, calling it, “a social compact that excludes women, African-Americans, and Native Americans.” He said the Bible held imperfections, too, such as its reference to “an eye for an eye” which is no longer accepted.

He says imperfection implies the challenge to “strive for the better,” and to work toward eliminating “bias and prejudice and bigotry and selfishness and greed.”

His second sermon, given on Mother’s Day, May 10, 1992, featured not Mary, mother of Jesus like you might expect, but Ruth, whom he described as a symbol of loyalty and courage. After her husband died, rather than staying in her homeland, Ruth chose to follow her mother in law, Naomi. She entered Judah, a strange land where she was eventually accepted, married and bore a son, who became the grandfather of David.

This Old Testament story choice points out that while Ruth was initially an outsider, the people of Judah did not cast her out, and she became a significant model of faith to generations.  Blackmun asked the congregation, “Can we match this example of the welcoming arms?”

Interestingly, this comment could be dropped into conversations today as we are still arguing many of the same issues.  Davis’ essay notes that in his sermon Blackmun tied the experience of Ruth’s migration to a new home to the “current problem of illegal immigrants from Mexico.” (That “current problem” was 27 years ago.)

Davis concludes by demonstrating Blackmun’s bent toward compassion and fairness shown in his dissent in the 1989 case, DeShaney v. Winnebago County Department of Social Services.

That case describes a child suffering beatings so severe from his father that he was repeatedly sent to the hospital.   Despite almost 20 visits to the home by social workers, the state never removed him. The final beating was so serious; Joshua had to be committed to a lifetime of institutional care. His mother sued the state social services department and lost. The majority opinion pointed out that the harm came from the father, not the state.

Blackmun’s dissent opened with two words, “Poor Joshua!” His opinion was just four paragraphs, but mentioned the child’s full name twice, unconventional for Supreme Court opinions, Davis notes.  He wrote, “Faced with a choice, I would adopt a ‘sympathetic’ reading, one which comports with dictates of fundamental justice and recognizes that compassion need not be exiled from the province of judging.”

Davis, in her essay, opens by describing the eulogy for Harry Blackmun in 1999, delivered by Rev. William Holmes. He spoke of “The Churchmanship of Harry Blackmun,” telling of his deep involvement in the life of the Methodist church.  Holmes said the Justice’s theory guiding interpretation of the Constitution was the same as his Biblical interpretation. It was grounded in compassion.

This is the man who wrote the Roe v. Wade decision that affirmed legalized abortion during the first trimester of pregnancy, which is currently being challenged in several states.

I read the Roe v. Wade decision. I’m not a lawyer, but I can pull out the key points. It’s not that long, but includes a summary of history of the practice going back to the Persian Empire, 500 BC.

The Texas law at issue in Roe v. Wade that outlawed abortion was found to have violated the Due Process Clause of the 14thAmendment. The 7-2 Supreme Court decision said that during the first trimester a decision about abortion must be left to the “medical judgment of the pregnant woman’s attending physician.” After the first three months of pregnancy, the State may choose to regulate such procedure in ways “reasonably related to maternal health.”

It makes a difference to me that the Justice who wrote the Roe v. Wade decision was a person of faith. I am confident of his legal knowledge, and comfortable with the decision. I don’t know if it’s perfect, but I suggest we all live with the goal in mind that Mr. Blackmun searched for in his judgments: striving for “perfection” in an imperfect world.

About Debbie Wesslund

I served on the Jefferson County Board of Education, Louisville, KY, from 2007-2014 and continue to be an advocate for public schools. There’s a high-level dialogue about public education that swings from positive to negative, with many who seek the spotlight voicing an inaccurate picture of our public schools. Words matter. They get lodged in our public perceptions, creating a narrative that doesn’t reflect the real story. There’s so much more to public education, and much worth applauding in Kentucky and across the country. The stakes are high: public education is the most serious public business we are about as a community, a state and a nation. We must continually renew our resolve to support public education. There’s always more promise in building something up, than in tearing it down.
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