The Blackmun Myth
Pro-lifers should be realistic about their short-term goals.


Blackmun is not seriously entertaining personhood; it’s clear from the context (and from the rest of the Roe opinion) that he rejects it as nonsense. He is not saying that exceptions are “unconstitutional” and never uses such language. The urban legend has it exactly backwards: The Texas statute does not define the meaning of the 14th Amendment; the 14th Amendment defines the validity of the Texas statute.

If Blackmun had seriously entertained the notion that the 14th Amendment protected the unborn, the Texas statute would not have impeded him; the Court could have struck it down. Blackmun set up his sneering contradiction only after concluding that the 14th Amendment did not protect the unborn. He thought his manufactured scenario would lampoon Texas’s case.

Thus, the following extrapolation on the website is also obviously wrong:

“Personhood” legislation, by statutorily vesting legal “personhoodat fertilization for ALL human beings, satisifies [sic] the Roe formula published over 36 years ago.

The key legal issue presented in the very text of Roe, necessary to unravel the entire Roe framework, is statutorily vesting legal “personhood” at fertilization for ALL human beings, with no exceptions. . . . 

In other words, pass “personhood” legislation in your state, as a bill, or as a constitutional amendment, and according to the U.S. Supreme Court Roe v. Wade decision itself, [so-called] “legal” [sic] abortion is over in that jurisdiction.

Basing state personhood amendments on extrapolations of Blackmun’s language in Roe is futile. This does not mean that establishing some form of legal personhood in the states is not a worthy goal. It simply means that (because of our system of federalism) it will not — it cannot — establish 14th Amendment personhood or set up a test case to overturn Roe.

First, not one justice on the current Supreme Court supports the proposition that the unborn are protected as “persons” within the meaning of the 14th Amendment. Not one. All have rejected it, explicitly or implicitly.

Second, these proposals would be better designed if they followed the Missouri statutory preamble enacted in the 1980s:

1. The general assembly of [Missouri] finds that:

(1) The life of each human being begins at conception;
(2) Unborn children have protectable interests in life, health, and well-being;
(3) The natural parents of unborn children have protectable interests in the life, health, and well-being of their unborn child.

2. Effective January 1, 1988, the laws of this state shall be interpreted and construed to acknowledge on behalf of the unborn child at every stage of development, all the rights, privileges, and immunities available to other persons, citizens, and residents of this state, subject only to the Constitution of the United States, and decisional interpretations thereof by the United States Supreme Court and specific provisions to the contrary in the statutes and constitution of this state.

3. As used in this section, the term “unborn children” or “unborn child” shall include all unborn child or children or the offspring of human beings from the moment of conception until birth at every stage of biological development.

Since the U.S. Supreme Court reviewed the Missouri preamble in the 1989 Webster case and found it constitutional, the preamble has been applied by Missouri courts to extend protections for unborn children in non-abortion situations.

Third, state legislation concerning fetal development will not supply facts that the justices are not already aware of. Justice Blackmun clearly thought he understood the “well-known facts of fetal development” in 1973. Moreover, the two partial-birth-abortion cases in 2000 and 2007 amply supplied facts about the humanity of the unborn and what abortion does to the unborn child. Even the most pro-abortion justices acknowledged this by noting that D&E (dilation and evacuation) abortions are no less brutal than D&X abortions. The Supreme Court’s majority opinion in the 2007 Gonzales case used the words “kill” or “killing” at least 18 times to describe abortion. The problem is not that the justices do not understand, but that they do not care.

Fourth, legislation is needed that will protect the unborn, but there’s no reason to believe such legislation will be an effective vehicle to challenge Roe, given the Court’s current composition. And while public education about fetal development will always be important, the notion that such facts will have a significant impact on the current justices is based on a profound misunderstanding of why most of those justices support Roe.

The emphasis on the unborn child completely overlooks the fact that the Court’s rationale for the abortion “right” shifted dramatically in the 1992 Casey decision, where it became a sociological rationale that women need abortion as a backup to failed contraception. Facts about fetal development have no bearing on this sociological rationale. The real challenge for pro-lifers in 2009 is to effectively address the assumption that abortion is good for women.

Finally, with the confirmation of pro-abortion Justice Sotomayor, and the likelihood that President Obama will have the opportunity to nominate more pro-abortion justices in the next three years, there is no chance that the Court will reconsider Roe as long as Obama is in office. Justice Scalia (who should know) plainly told a legal audience in Europe a few years ago that there was not a majority on the Court to overturn Roe. That’s even more certain today.

There are other goals that are more important — and more achievable in the current environment — than an illusory test case to “challenge Roe” based on questions that the current justices simply aren’t asking.

– Clarke D. Forsythe is senior counsel at Americans United for Life.