This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Forward Together project.
Nine months after the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion nationwide, a woman named Katherine T. wrote Supreme Court Associate Justice Harry Blackmun, the author of the case’s majority opinion, a rambling letter detailing her illegal abortion and expressing her gratitude.
“I, Katherine the ‘pure,’ who had studied catechism at the age of six, who had felt so guilty at the age of seven upon stealing a paper card from my best girl friend that I never again committed (to my knowledge) an illegal act (save a few parking violations here and there), had suddenly become one of the ‘bad girls,’ which centuries of our ‘Christian’ traditions have condemned as the worst of the worst,” Katherine wrote about finding herself pregnant and unmarried in 1967. She’d arranged an abortion, she told Blackmun, getting in the car of an unknown “racketeer,” not sure “where he was taking me or knowing what would happen to me.” At the time of her letter, in October 1973, Katherine was married with “a wanted son and a wanted daughter who with all their insatiable demands continue to be the jewels of our lives!!!” In hindsight, she mused that “it is more than the right to choose legal abortion that you have secured for us. Somehow, with that ruling, I felt you were also recognising me as a more fully human being.”
Katherine was not the only one who felt compelled to write to Blackmun in the aftermath of Roe. By the time of Blackmun’s 1994 retirement from the Court, more than 70,000 Americans had poured out their Roe-related approval, outrage, and ambivalence in letters to him, a sample of which are stored at the Library of Congress. The writers included women who’d had abortions, housewives, doctors, mothers happy that their daughters would have options in the event of an unintended pregnancy, Catholics, anti-choice individuals, and people who had never before contacted a public figure. Together, these letters form a remarkable and multivocal archive. But they, and Blackmun’s archived responses to them, also demonstrate what is sometimes lost in contemporary debates about reproductive rights: that being against abortion for oneself doesn’t always mean being against it for others.
Blackmun had not relished the task of churning out the majority opinion. Though the decision was written after multiple drafts and the usual conferences with his fellow justices, it was Blackmun whom the general public considered the sole author. And so it was Blackmun who received mounds of mail that excoriated him, commiserated with the task of articulating a new legal position on a fraught topic, celebrated his judicial leadership, or scorned him as a reprehensible activist judge.
As Blackmun wrote, it was “an unusual experience to be so constantly in the vortex of violent controversy.” Still, he maintained that he and the rest of the justices in the majority had made the right choice, even if it made people angry or conflicted with his own beliefs. In a widely circulated January 1983 Associated Press interview, he clarified his position: “I’d be less than candid if I said [the hate mail] does not hurt, but not as much anymore. People misunderstand. I am not for abortion. I hope my family never has to make such a decision. … I still think it was a correct decision. We are deciding a constitutional issue, not a moral one.”
In his ability to separate the tangle of issues in this way, Blackmun did what so many of today’s politicians can’t: maintained reservations about a practice, but still defended it as a legality for all and a possibility for some.
And Blackmun had not made his decision lightly. With his attention to history and medical background as legal counsel to the legendary Mayo Clinic, Blackmun had extensive questions about when abortion should be permitted. In memos to his fellow justices, including one found in Thurgood Marshall’s papers, he asked whether abortion should be restricted only to the first trimester or according to then-prevailing notions of fetal viability. This was a question that Blackmun’s doctor and legal correspondents also mulled in their letters back to him. “You’ll never get out of purgatory for this one,” wrote a chatty OB-GYN friend, whose tone quickly turned serious: “It occurred to me that one of the vexing gray zones will be the matter of timing. This matter troubled the ancient authorities, both legal and medical as well.”
Many supporters praised Blackmun’s measured approach, and it appears that he only answered sympathetic notes. Even so, there were plenty of letters and protests from people who called him a butcher of millions. Or, in a preview of current abortion-Holocaust comparisons, a Nazi.
Over time, Blackmun must have grown used to the attacks. But he often seemed wounded when criticism came from his peers, such as some former physician colleagues at the Mayo Clinic, or other unexpected sources. In one missive to Blackmun, an Owatonna, Minnesota, newspaper editor remarked on how conservative teachers had “enlisted school children in the fight, along with pickled fetuses, political pressures, and outright deceit of the public. It will all continue, I’m sure.” To which the justice replied: “I have been surprised, as you apparently are, by the enlistment of school children in the writing campaign. So many of the letters for children are almost hateful in their character that one begins to wonder what kind of teaching is going on in the schools.” Picketers showed up at Blackmun’s speeches at college campuses nationwide, and a gunshot was once fired in his window. The justice, who had been a reluctant advocate, traveled with bodyguards.
Blackmun also had a reputation for being a devout Methodist; to that end, he heard from citizens who tried to counter the annual deluge of hate mail that arrived with each Roe anniversary. Many of these letter-writers shared his reservations about abortion, yet still abhorred what they called the anti-Christian behavior of the name-callers and extremists who criticized Blackmun’s role as Roe’s architect. A Kansas woman who identified herself as middle-class and Catholic recalled her 18-year-old friend dying of an illegal, $150 abortion performed by a doctor who was, years later, a voice in the anti-abortion movement. “Please believe me when I say,” she wrote in 1981, “that these strident cruel political preachers do not represent us.”
These words, like Blackmun’s own, reflect a complexity of abortion attitudes beyond the dichotomy of “pro-choice” and “anti-choice.” In January 1983, an Allentown, Pennsylvania, woman wrote, “I am anti-abortion, as you are. But I find myself defending women and their rights as more important than the ‘rights’ of the fetus.” The same week, an Alexandria, Virginia, woman wrote to thank Blackmun for making her abortion possible. She believed “abortion is an obvious violence to nature that no one would want to commit. … However, it seemed to me that it was a higher moral choice to try to care properly for the three children I already had than to bring another into the world at a time when I could not see how I was going to support any of them. So I had my abortion, got an education, got divorced, supported my children and raised them to splendid adulthood. I feel satisfied about my decisions in life.”
While these letters don’t represent all opinions expressed in the Blackmun correspondence, they do underscore what’s frequently drowned out in the hyper-political morass of today’s abortion debates. Yes, the assault on reproductive rights has reached fever pitch in Congress and state legislatures, and the loudest voices are, predictably, the most extreme. But when it comes to Americans’ abortion attitudes, much has stayed the same. Then and now, people have had complicated attitudes about abortion that defy simple categorization, and many are willing to defend choices they might not like or make themselves—even risking, as Blackmun did, decades of criticism as a result.