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Alito Comments on Abortion Stir Debate

It appears that the divisive issue of abortion could dominate the confirmation hearings for Judge Samuel Alito, President Bush's choice to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.

The latest indication that abortion will play a major role in the confirmation hearings comes from a 1985 document written by Judge Alito.

At the time, Mr. Alito was seeking a promotion in the Justice Department under President Ronald Reagan. In the document, Mr. Alito wrote that had been proud to argue on the government's behalf that the U.S. Constitution does not protect a woman's right to abortion, a view he said he personally believed in very strongly.

Abortion rights groups have seized on the statement as proof that Judge Alito will seek to overturn the 1973 Supreme Court decision known as Roe v. Wade that legalized abortion.

On Tuesday, Judge Alito met with Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat and a strong supporter of abortion rights. Afterward, Senator Feinstein told reporters that Judge Alito told her that he feels differently now because at that time he was a political advocate seeking a job.

"[He said to me] I am now a judge, you know, I have been on the circuit court for 15 years and it is very different. I am not an advocate. I do not give heed to my personal views," she said.

Senator Feinstein and other opposition Democrats intend to closely question Judge Alito during the confirmation hearings that are scheduled to begin in January.

Abortion rights groups and other liberal activists say the 20-year-old comments from Judge Alito will help them mobilize opposition to his nomination.

Ralph Neas heads a liberal activist group called People for the American Way.

"He [Alito] is not saying I am merely reflecting an administration point of view," he said. "I am reflecting my own views and they are consistent with the efforts of the radical right to overturn Roe v. Wade and many other decisions."

But Judge Alito's comments about abortion could bolster support from conservative Christian groups which would like to see the Supreme Court overturn the Roe v. Wade decision.

Gary Bauer is a conservative activist and a former Republican presidential contender.

"Even though there are people in Congress who will try to paint him as an extremist, he is a mainstream conservative," he said. "I think this nomination will have, obviously, a battle. But I am pretty confident that at the end of the day he is going to be confirmed."

Political analysts believe the confirmation battle over Judge Alito could be more intense than the one for Chief Justice John Roberts, who was chosen to succeed the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist.

Judge Alito has been nominated to replace the high court's leading moderate, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. She is a supporter of abortion rights and over the years has often been the deciding vote in a number of five to four decisions on the Supreme Court.

"So I think you will see much more of a partisan divide on this one," said John Fortier, a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. "John Roberts had 22 votes against him. I think you are going to see many more than 22 votes against Judge Alito. The real question is, are Democrats united enough to filibuster this nomination and I think that is an open question."

A filibuster is a parliamentary tactic that allows the minority party in the Senate to block a confirmation vote by endless debate.

Democrats have not said whether they would employ a filibuster to stop the Alito nomination.

But political expert Stuart Rothenberg, appearing on VOA's Encounter program, says President Bush and his Republican allies may welcome a battle over Judge Alito that could energize conservative supporters around the country.

"The alternative is for the president to be fighting over his reputation and his agenda and his performance, which is much worse than 50-50," said Mr. Rothenberg. "So I think this is a fight that he needed to have, should have had before Harriet Miers."

The president had nominated White House Counsel Harriet Miers for the O'Connor seat but she withdrew after intense conservative opposition. He then nominated Judge Alito.

Even if Judge Alito is confirmed for the high court, that would still leave five of the nine Supreme Court justices in favor of abortion rights.