Hastings Constitutional Law Quarterly


Ann Alpers


Justice Blackmun made unique contributions to law and medicine. In particular, he had a vision of the relationship between doctors and patients that respected both the professional integrity of the physician and the autonomy of the patient. Examination of several of Justice Blackmun's opinions yields a nuanced view of the complex ties between professional care givers and the patients whom they serve. In particular, the Justice valued maintaining the confidentiality of medical information, respecting the role played by allied health professionals in providing comprehensive care to patients, and ensuring that patients gave informed consent to medical care. Most important, Justice Blackmun saw the patient as a whole person rather than as an assortment of disease processes.

Justice Blackmun's sense of the individuality of patients and his compassion for those who had limited access to care gave him a powerful vision of the relationship between patients and physicians. His appreciation for the complexities of modem medicine was even more complete because his understanding of quantitative data gave him an unusual appreciation for the physician's obligation to tailor medicine to public health ends. The Justice's empirical jurisprudence, as evidenced in his opinions in Barefoot v. Estelle and McClesky v. Kemp, demonstrates an ease with statistics and an understanding of the principles that govern the practices of evidence-based medicine and epidemiology.

Justice Blackmun's unique perspective on physicians' obligations, both to the individual patients for whom they care and to populations and public health, made him appreciate the tensions between the physician's obligations to individual patients and to society.