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Documents Reveal Battle to Preserve 'Roe'

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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Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.