The New York Times famously—and tellingly—greeted Roe v. Wade by declaring that the Supreme Court had effectively ended the abortion debate.
What they did not do, as often claimed, was use the term “settled” or run the headline “Supreme Court Settles Abortion Issue.”
The latter claim first appeared in a January 23, 2005 Washington Times editorial:
On Jan. 23, 1973, the day after the Supreme Court ruled on Roe v. Wade, the New York Times ran this headline: “Supreme Court Settles Abortion Issue.”
The story gained detail over time. Circuit Judge A Raymond Randolph delivered a Federalist Society speech in November 2005 in which he said “The next day, the front page headline in the New York Times read: ‘Supreme Court Settles Abortion Issue.’”
Did that headline appear on the Times’ frontpage?
No. As seen above, the somewhat similar “Ruling Seems to Forestall Abortion Debate in Albany” did headline a secondary story on the Grey Lady’s frontpage, but not the words quoted by the Washington Times and Judge Randolph. Nor did they appear elsewhere in the paper.
In fact, the word “settled” was not even used in the paper’s coverage, as Richard John Neuhaus pointed out in 1998:
In speaking to pro-life gatherings, I have over the years referred to the New York Times’ claim in January 1973 that the Supreme Court had “settled” the abortion question. I then follow that with the observation that twenty-five years later it remains the most unsettled question in our public life.
Questioned about this, I asked Richard Doerflinger of the bishops’ pro-life office to get the exact quote. On January 23, the day after the 7-2 Roe v. Wade decision, the Times story called the decision “an historic resolution of a fiercely controversial issue.” The editorial the next day said: “The Court’s verdict on abortions provides a sound foundation for final and reasonable resolution of a debate that has divided America too long. As with the division over Vietnam, the country will be healthier with that division ended.” The word “settled” does not appear. I stand corrected. Twenty-five years later, abortion remains the most unresolved question in our public life.
The quotes highlighted by Neuhaus—the first from Warren Weaver, Jr’s January 23 frontpage story and the latter from the Times’ January 24 house editorial (headlined “Respect for Privacy”)—are if anything more expressive of the Times’ blindness. Vietnam has come and gone, but abortion is with us still—and will be until every child is welcomed in life and protected in law.
Update: Below, Judge Randolph writes the following:
Mr. Schmitz neglects to mention that in my published version of my 2005 speech, I wrote: “The next day [after the Roe decision], a front page article in the New York Times stated that the Supreme Court’s decision marked “the historic resolution of” this “fiercely controversial issue.” 29 Harvard J. of Law and Public Policy at p. 1045. This statement was entirely accurate.
Judge Randolph is right. I referred to the version of his speech as published by the Federalist Society website. The version published in the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy (itself affiliated with the society) went through an editing process that speeches, as a general matter, do not.