The (only) Methodist on the court

July 5th, 2022

Remembering Justice Blackmun

Harry A. Blackmun (1908-1999) wrote the Supreme Court opinion for Roe v Wade, the 7-2 decision that established the right to an abortion, a right that was taken away last week. He was also a faithful, life-long Methodist who, as far as I know, was the only Methodist to ever serve on the Supreme Court. 

I got to know Harry and Dottie Blackmun when their daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter became part of St. Luke’s UMC. It marked a turning point in all of their lives. Susie wrote: 

“When Dad and I knelt together at the communion rail -a meeting place I never, ever would have envisioned -and he clenched my hand while tears streamed down his face, I knew how much this meant to him.

The old wounds, from battles that had raged ever since I’d reached puberty, were at last beginning to heal. We were a family again.” (You can read Susie’s story here.)


We welcomed Justice Blackmun as the preacher on Laity Sunday in 1990. We visited together in our home and in his chambers at the Court. I was with the family for his memorial service at Metropolitan Memorial United Methodist Church and his burial at Arlington where, at his request, he was laid to rest beside Justice Thurgood Marshall.

In the service, The Rev. Dr. William A. Holmes spoke on “The Churchmanship of Harry Blackmun.” He described a man whose “theory of Constitutional interpretation was the same as his theory of biblical interpretation: a theory grounded in compassion.” It would be hard to be more Methodist than that! John Wesley consistently centered his interpretation of scripture in the love of God which was revealed in Jesus Christ.

In Moral Ambition: The Sermons of Harry A. Blackmun, Dena S. Davis concluded:

Justice Blackmun clearly saw it as his job, within the confines of Constitutional jurisprudence, to help to make the Constitution “more perfect.” What that meant, among other things, was to interpret the document as compassionately as possible, and as inclusively as possible. Whether the petitioner was an alien lately come to America or a young child completely dependent on the state for the most basic protections, deciding cases in a way that made the Constitution more responsive to their moral claims was, in the Justice’s eyes, taking the Constitution and therefore our nation, a little further down the road toward perfection.

That vision of “perfection” is imbedded in the Preamble to the Constitution, but it’s also the language of Methodists who are always “going on to perfection.”

The Road to Roe … and Beyond 

I’ve been re-reading Becoming Justice Blackmun: Harry Blackmun’s Supreme Court Journey by Linda Greenhouse. In wrestling with the decision which Justice Alito now declared to be “egregiously wrong from the start,” the Court worked to balance two “important and distinct” interests within the Constitutional “guarantee of certain areas or zones of privacy” (based on fourteen precedents). These were identified as protecting the health of the woman and “the potentiality of human life.”
Blackmun wrote that while the right to privacy “is broad enough to encompass a woman’s decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy … the right is not absolute. There is a point at which the balance of interests tipped in favor of state regulation.” Growing out of his long-term relationship with the Mayo Clinic, he recommended the end of the first trimester. The 7-2 vote reflected the nationwide consensus with 64% of the America people agreed that the decision should be left to the woman and her physician. 

The Methodist Middle 

Justice Blackmun is gone, but The United Methodist Church continues to represent the balance of these interests in our official position on abortion.

The beginning of life and the ending of life are the God-given boundaries of human existence. While individuals have always had some degree of control over when they would die, they now have the awesome power to determine when and even whether new individuals will be born. Our belief in the sanctity of unborn human life makes us reluctant to approve abortion.

But we are equally bound to respect the sacredness of the life and well-being of the mother and the unborn child.

We recognize tragic conflicts of life with life that may justify abortion, and in such cases we support the legal option of abortion … 

We call all Christians to a searching and prayerful inquiry into the sorts of conditions that may cause them to consider abortion. We entrust God to provide guidance, wisdom, and discernment to those facing an unintended pregnancy …

We commit our Church to continue to provide nurturing ministries to those who terminate a pregnancy, to those in the midst of a crisis pregnancy, and to those who give birth …

Governmental laws and regulations do not provide all the guidance required by the informed Christian conscience. Therefore, a decision concerning abortion should be made only after thoughtful and prayerful consideration by the parties involved, with medical, family, pastoral, and other appropriate counsel.

As a pastor, I’ve been with faithful people who, for a variety of reasons, decided to terminate a pregnancy. It’s never easy. I’ve never been able to offer a simple answer. We have an adopted grand-daughter who would not be in our family if her birth mother had chosen abortion. But I know that none of these people, the physicians, nor the people who drove them to the clinic are criminals. Based on scripture interpreted through reason, tradition and experience along with my respect for the Constitution, I believe the Court was “egregiously wrong” in reversing Roe

Just the Beginning?

Justice Thomas made it clear that this is just the beginning. He wants the Court to reconsider other rights that are based in the Constitutional right to privacy. He named contraception (Griswold vs. Connecticut), private sexual practices (Lawerence v. Texas) and same-sex marriage (Obergefell v. Hodges), all of which are based on the same right of privacy. He conveniently left out the right to interracial marriage (Loving v. Virginia).

I have no idea where all this will take us, but I wish we had another Methodist on the Court!

This article is adapted from Jim Harnish's blog, with permission from the author.

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