An Evening with Justice Blackmun on the Anniversary of Roe

Deal W. Hudson
January 21, 2010

It was the summer of 1993 – 20 years after Roe v. Wade – and I was teaching a seminar at the Aspen Institute in Colorado with Mortimer Adler. Adler, famous for his Great Books approach to philosophy, was in his late 80s then and had asked for my help in getting through his intense three-hour seminars.

On the day I arrived, Adler invited me to a cocktail reception at his home. Excited to be there, I arrived early and found myself alone in the living room with Adler and Justice Harry Blackmun. What I didn’t know was that I was to be a guest of honor at Blackmun’s lecture later that evening to commemorate 20 years of Roe.

When Adler introduced me as a Catholic philosopher who taught St. Thomas Aquinas, Blackmun smiled awkwardly. Before he could say anything, I couldn’t help but blurt out, “Yes, I am one of those guys who disagree with your decision onRoe.” We all chuckled, as polite people do over cocktails when they disagree, and moved on to other subjects.

When I took my seat in the front row of the lecture hall for Blackmun’s address, I looked around – it was clear this was going to be a love-fest for the author of Roe. Women filled the hall and stood in the aisles. They roared when Blackmun was introduced and interrupted every few sentences with loud applause.

After several of these ovations, Blackmun looked down at me in the front row – I was not clapping – and held up his hand for quiet, saying to the crowd, “You need to remember that not everyone here agrees with my decision.”

The crowd began to boo; there were a few shouts, and I slunk down in my chair, feeling I would be torn apart if my dissent were recognized. I felt a real moment of fear – the response from the crowd was that visceral.

Everyone who has served in the pro-life cause has stories like this. They may not have ever met Justice Blackmun, but they have looked in the faces of those who justify the murder of children in the name of freedom, of choice, of the right to control their bodies, to combat “overpopulation” and so-called global warming; the list goes on.

But as I look back, the fear I felt that evening did not compare to the fright I have experienced on other occasions in the presence of apologists for abortion. One of the first philosophy classes I taught was an ethics class at Mercer University in Atlanta, a Southern Baptist college. Abortion was on my syllabus, and when that day came, a female student in her mid-30s with two small children gave a presentation. I can remember what she said almost verbatim. She ended her report, a defense of abortion, with these words: “Before I had my two children, I aborted two others, because my husband and I didn’t want them. I did it because I loved them, and they wouldn’t be happy.”

The fear I felt then was deeper than what I’d experienced that evening in Aspen. Anger can always be turned against those who support abortion; it weakens their argument and suggests a lack of certainty. But love? And happiness? How many people, I asked myself then, have been convinced that abortion is good by an appeal to love and happiness? It’s a lie, of course – but the bigger the lie, as Goebbels once said, the easier it is for people to believe.

At that moment, as a freshman philosophy professor, I knew the “great ideas” had been taken away from us, had been torn from their roots. Ideas like love and happiness were being turned inside out to justify the worst of human crimes: the murder of innocent life.

More than a decade later, I published a book on happiness, attempting to trace the evolution of this philosophical mistake. That book was encouraged by Adler himself, who knew that I was using it to address the abortion debate. In spite of his conversion to Christianity, and his advocacy of Catholic philosophy, Adler supported Roe. Every time I pressed him – or Blackmun, for that matter – for deep intellectual convictions about the basis for Roe, the conversation went nowhere.

Adler and I would sit in his backyard, smoking cigars on a beautiful summer afternoon in Aspen. I would start the discussion with the Catholic metaphysics of being, act, and potency that he himself had espoused for more than 60 years, only to watch him throw up his hands saying, “Let’s not talk about this anymore; I just can’t go there,” and he would mutter something about upsetting his wife and friends.

With both Blackmun and Adler, I came to the conclusion that their support for abortion wasn’t really principled at all. Rather, Roe was an intellectually flimsy accommodation to the passions of the feminist movement, passions they did not want to oppose. For Adler, in particular, the contradiction he found himself in was painful – he knew that neither good moral choice nor sound laws were based upon mere personal preference or a supposed privacy right.

With the passing years, the rationale for Roe v. Wade appears more and more like the product of a vast sociological experiment: a moment in history when women, aided by compliant men, declared themselves free of creation’s order.

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