Sally Blackmun

(WOMENSENEWS)–Justice Harry A. Blackmun, the U.S. Supreme Court justice famous for his pro-choice decision in the 1973 case of Roe v. Wade, had a habit of bringing home his hate mail.

When most of the archives of the Nixon appointee become public this week, a large collection of those letters will be available for the entire world to read. But for now they’re still in the control of his daughterSally Blackmun, the middle of three sisters andtrustee of the collection of her father, who died in 1999.

She gave a Women’s eNews a look at some samples:

“. . . I hope you croak you old bastard. You are a worthless, pathetic excuse for a Supreme Court justice. You can’t die soon enough. You are responsible for the deaths of thousands of unborn children, which you cloak in ‘woman’s rights,'” said one letter-writer.

“I guess we were appalled that people were as nasty as they were,” said Sally Blackmun, who is senior associate general counsel for Orlando-based Darden Restaurants, Inc. Her father, she said, responded by saving every scrap of paper. On March 4, massive files, including 100 folders of letters, will be opened to the public at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. according to his daughter, a corporate lawyer in Orlando, Fla.

Emerging From Reticence

For many years, Sally Blackmun was reticent to speak out about the abortion issue. “I felt, being in the law, that I needed to distance myself from Dad, do my own thing,” she told Women’s eNews. But in the process of preserving the archives and legacy of her father, with whom she had a great affinity, she began to emerge as a calm and assured voice for women’s right to choose.

“They both evolved,” said Harold Koh, “She had a unique understanding of the court. She came to realize that she stood for the same things as her father.” Koh, the dean-appointee of Yale Law School, is a former Blackmun law clerk who consulted on collection.

Sally agrees. “If we were to go back to the dark days before Roe, many people who take it for granted would be totally shocked by the reversal and what it means. It weighs heavy on me,” she said. Honoring her father, she discovered, meant refusing to stand silently aside and, like her father’s opinions, she is steadily becoming part of the ongoing legacy of Roe v. Wade.

Her first forays into talking openly about Roe v. Wade came late in her father’s life, when he requested that she represent him at award ceremonies. Before a Planned Parenthood group in upstate New York, she found herself overwhelmed with memories of her own experiences at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs in pre-Roe days and described them.

There, as a 19-year-old sophomore, Sally learned she was pregnant in 1966. “It was one of those things I was not at all proud of, that I was not at all pleased with myself about. It was a big disappointment to my parents,” she said in an interview. “I did what so many young women of my era did. I quit college and married my 20-year-old college boyfriend. It was a decision that I might have made differently, had Roe v. Wade been around,” she said. It was, she said, one of the most difficult periods of her life.

Three weeks after a quiet wedding, she had a miscarriage. But her life had already changed. Her student career at Skidmore was cut short and she moved to join her new spouse in another state. The marriage lasted six years and it took her nearly as long to complete her college requirements. Even that might not have occurred, if she had carried to term, she said.

Sally, who married again and has two daughters, now speaks regularly to groups about Roe. She volunteers as a court-appointed guardian to represent the needs of infants who are abandoned, most commonly by young women who feel that they have no options.

Four years ago, she joined the board of the Planned Parenthood of Greater Orlando, leading a $3 million campaign to build a new facility in Central Florida. In May, she will assume the role of chair. Rita Lowndes, a former chair, said, “Our local chapter is filling a huge need. Sally sees it as a way to honor her father’s legacy.”

Most recently, Sally wrote the introduction to “The War on Choice: The Right-Wing Attack on Women’s Rights and How to Fight Back,” written by Gloria Feldt. In it, she repeated an alert sounded by her father about a court environment increasingly hostile to reproductive rights. “A chill wind blows,” he wrote in 1989.

Lightening Rod for Backlash

After he authored Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision on abortion that changed women’s lives, Justice Blackmun became a lightening rod for backlash. The case established abortion as a decision protected by a constitutional right to personal privacy. It also prevented states from subjecting women and their doctors to criminal sanctions for giving or getting abortions in the first trimester. While restrictions on abortion could be imposed thereafter, states could never jeopardize a woman’s life or health.

People infuriated by the decision picketed Blackmun wherever he traveled. In 1989, a bullet came zinging through his living room window.

“After that, he didn’t go out anywhere in public without some kind of police protection,” Sally Blackmun said.

When the opinion in Roe was assigned to Blackmun, he canvassed his family, Sally Blackmun said. “Roe was a case that Dad struggled with. It was a case that he asked his daughters’ and wife’s opinion about.”

Because she was living in D.C. and working at the Nixon White House as an executive assistant for the Council on International Economic Policy, her father let her know when the decision was to be announced so she could sit in.

“I remember that it was very tense in the courtroom, very crowded. The decorum is such that people aren’t yelling and screaming and carrying on. We didn’t know how he was going to come down on it. And I was very pleased with the decision and the fact that it gave women that right of choice,” said Blackmun. “Dad always felt that it was the right thing to do and the necessary thing to do toward the full emancipation of women in this country. So we certainly were in favor of what he did.”

Katherine Kolbert, a lawyer in Philadelphia, recalled that Justice Blackmun grew even stronger in other abortion cases after Roe by insisting that women’s ability to control their reproductive lives is central to their full equality. Kolbert appeared before the Supreme Court in a 1992 abortion case that permitted new restrictions on abortion, while still upholding a women’s right to choose. Kolbert represented the pro-choice perspective of the abortion rights groups, arguing that Roe should be upheld. Blackmun voted to uphold Roe and objected to new restrictions.

The archives created by Blackmun’s memos, drafts and personal notes will offer the most comprehensive behind-the-scenes view of Supreme Court decision-making yet, said Yale law school’s Koh. The collection consists of 522,000 items, including 38 hours of oral commentary. The index alone is 360 pages. Hundreds of scholars are clamoring to dive in.

They won’t be disappointed, said Koh. “Many, many surprises.”

Cynthia L. Cooper, a journalist in New York with a background as a lawyer, writes frequently about topics of reproductive rights, justice and equality.

For more information:

Planned Parenthood Federation of America–
Behind Every Choice Is a Story: