Few Clues To Sotomayor's Position On Abortion

Although the culture wars began and still thrive on the abortion question, President Obama has managed to nominate a judge to the U.S. Supreme Court who has no record on the issue.

Sonia Sotomayor has been a federal judge for 17 years, but never in that time has she ruled directly on whether there is a constitutional right to an abortion.

The desire for more information on Sotomayor's stance is something abortion-rights groups and abortion opponents have in common.

"I think both sides can agree that the American public should know where its nominees to the Supreme Court stand on important constitutionally decided decisions like Roe v. Wade," says Nancy Northup of the Center for Reproductive Freedom.

Charmaine Yoest of Americans United for Life agrees: "We've really been focused on asking senators to really probe this question of her judicial philosophy, as to whether or not she's going to approach a decision like Roe v. Wade as a jurist or as a woman."

Tangential Rulings

But if anything, nominees have become more reticent, not less, about answering such questions at their confirmation hearings. For people who want to figure out where Sotomayor is on abortion and privacy rights, there isn't much to work with.

She has made only tangential rulings on abortion — decisions that, if anything, sided with the anti-abortion position, but cast in terms of following precedent. In one case, she upheld the Bush administration's ban on aid to international organizations that either promote or provide abortions.

"The Supreme Court has made clear that the government is free to favor an anti-abortion position over the pro-choice position," she wrote.

And in a case involving China's forced abortion policy, she severely criticized her colleagues on the court who said that only women, and not their husbands, were eligible for asylum.

"The termination of a wanted pregnancy under a coercive population control program can only be devastating to any couple, akin, no doubt, to the killing of a child," she wrote.

Catholic Faith

Sotomayor, raised a Roman Catholic, would be the sixth Catholic on the court if confirmed. Four of the Catholics currently on the court have voted consistently against abortion rights. One, Justice Anthony Kennedy, has been a swing vote on the issue, voting to uphold the core right, but approving of most regulations to curb the practice.

Predicting where a justice will be on the issue is dicey. Abortion-rights groups lobbied hard against the confirmation of David Souter, nominated to the court by the first President Bush. Although he had never ruled on an abortion case, they believed he would vote to overturn Roe v. Wade. They were wrong.

This time, abortion-rights groups are divided between those that quickly endorsed Sotomayor and those who want to know more. The anti-abortion groups, on the other hand, were branding Sotomayor a radical even before she was nominated.

"For us, this is a question of principle over politics," says Yoest of Americans United for Life, "when you really see the court at a crossroads."

Actually, it is not, at least for those who oppose abortion. Since Souter was a vote to keep Roe v. Wade in place, replacing him with someone of similar views would change nothing. On the other hand, if Sotomayor turns out to oppose Roe, that would be a game-changer.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.