Documents Reveal Battle to Preserve 'Roe'

Court Nearly Reversed Abortion Ruling, Blackmun Papers Show

Listen: <b>Web Extra:</b> Blackmun on the Possibility that 'Roe v. Wade' Would be Overturned

Justice Harry Blackmun

Justice Harry Blackmun answers questions in 1995 as part of his oral history. The Justice Harry A. Blackmun Oral History Project hide caption

itoggle caption The Justice Harry A. Blackmun Oral History Project

Blackmun's May 18, 1972, letter to the Supreme Court presenting his first draft opinion in the Roe v. Wade abortion-rights case. Library of Congress hide caption

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itoggle caption Library of Congress

The first page of Blackmun's May 18, 1972, first draft opinion in Roe v. Wade. Library of Congress hide caption

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itoggle caption Library of Congress

The Supreme Court came close to virtually overturning Roe v. Wade, according to papers of the late Justice Harry Blackmun being released today. NPR's Nina Totenberg was the only broadcast journalist granted advance access to 1,576 boxes of his files and 38 hours of oral history tapes. In the first of a series of reports, Totenberg examines shifts within the court that allowed the Roe ruling to be maintained.

The Blackmun papers reveal that the court's first vote was to overrule Roe in all but name, Totenberg reports on Morning Edition. But as the issue came to a head, Chief Justice William Rehnquist and the court's three other anti-Roe justices were blindsided by three centrist justices who worked together in secret to preserve a woman's right to an abortion.

The 1992 abortion case was Planned Parenthood v. Casey, in which the first Bush administration was pushing hard for the reversal of Roe, the landmark 1973 ruling authored by Blackmun.

Justice Anthony Kennedy initially voted with the anti-Roe conservatives, giving them a majority of five, but he subsequently changed his vote to support, not eviscerate Roe, the Blackmun papers show. The switch came even as Rehnquist, was circulating a so-called majority opinion that would have left Roe a meaningless shell, Totenberg reports.

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