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Last Updated: Thursday, 4 March, 2004, 19:23 GMT
Judge bemused by abortion furore
US Supreme Court
The issue of abortion has proved challenging for the Supreme Court
A US Supreme Court judge who helped pass the nation's landmark abortion ruling was unaware the issue was so controversial, new documents show.

Justice Harry A Blackmun's papers were unveiled by the US Library of Congress after he permitted their release five years after his death.

The judge, who wrote the ruling, admits in his notes on the Roe v Wade case he did not appreciate its impact.

The 1973 decision ruled 7-2 that women had the right to opt for an abortion.

It said the constitutional right to privacy guaranteed women the absolute right to choose abortion in the first three months of their pregnancy and proffers more limited rights in the second and third trimesters of a woman's pregnancy.


"I never thought that I would be standing against the combined might of the Roman Catholic Church and the Mormon Church and 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue [The White House]," he admits in an excerpt quoted by the Washington Post newspaper.

"I suspect I've been called every possible epithetical name, Hitler, Butcher of Dachau, Pontius Pilate, Herod, murderer, madman."

His written judgement on the Roe v Wade case reportedly led to him receiving more than 60,000 angry letters and suffering threats on his life.

But analysts say the ruling - and the often hostile response it created for him - seemed to galvanise Justice Blackmun into adopting more liberal attitudes towards women and others seeking equal rights through the courts.

'Welcome news'

Roe v Wade remains one of America's most contentious legal decisions and has formed the backdrop of a battle between pro- and anti-abortion activists.

Justice Blackmun's papers also reveal how close the ruling came to being overturned in 1992.

The Supreme Court seemed about to vote in favour of upholding restrictive abortion laws in Pennsylvania in the Planned Parenthood v Casey case.

Five justices were prepared to vote in favour of the case, but a handwritten note to Justice Blackmun reveals that one of them had decided, at the last minute, to change his mind.

"I need to see you as soon as you have a few free moments... I want to tell you about some developments... and at least part of what I say should come as welcome news," the note, from Justice Anthony M Kennedy, says.

Justice Kennedy's U-turn meant that, although some restrictions were introduced, Roe v Wade was generally upheld.

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