The divisive issue of abortion has emerged as a major point of contention in the Senate confirmation hearings for Judge John Roberts, President Bush's choice to be the next Chief Justice of the United States.

From the beginning, it was clear that abortion would be a major subject of discussion in the Roberts hearings.

Pennsylvania Republican Arlen Specter chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee.

"But I start with the central issue, which perhaps concerns most Americans and that is the woman's right to choose and Roe Versus Wade," said Mr. Specter.

In keeping with the practice of past high court nominees, Judge Roberts declined to say how he might rule on abortion cases that might come before the court in the future.

But he did indicate that the 1973 decision legalizing abortion known by its shorthand title of Roe Versus Wade is, "settled" (legal) precedent.

"I do think that it is a jolt to the legal system when you overrule a precedent.  Precedent plays an important role in promoting stability and even-handedness," Judge Roberts said.

The Roberts hearings are the latest example of how abortion remains one of the most divisive social issues in the country.

In 1973, the Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion was decided by a vote of 7-2.  Numerous Supreme Court decisions since have upheld the central tenet of abortion rights, but have added restrictions as well.

Democrats like Senator Dianne Feinstein of California say safeguarding abortion rights is a major consideration in deciding whether to confirm Judge Roberts.

"I am concerned by a trend on the court to limit this right and thereby to curtail the autonomy that we have fought for and achieved, in this case, over just simply controlling our own reproductive system rather than having some politicians do it for us," said Ms. Feinstein.

Abortion opponents have intensified their efforts in the years since the Roe vs Wade decision and have demanded that President Bush appoint Supreme Court justices who would overturn the abortion decision.

Sam Brownback is a Republican Senator from Kansas.

"Since that time [1973 decision], nearly 40 million children have been aborted in America.  40 million lives that could be amongst us, but are not," he said.

In addition to replacing the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist with Judge Roberts, President Bush must also nominate a replacement for retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.

Chief Justice Rehnquist was an opponent of abortion while Justice O'Connor has been in the court majority that has upheld abortion rights.

George Washington University legal expert Jonathan Turley says there will be tremendous pressure on President Bush from conservatives to appoint an anti-abortion justice to replace Justice O'Connor.

"This president campaigned on appointing a reliable conservative to the Supreme Court,? said Mr. Turley.  ?If he were to nominate a moderate, it would be viewed as a terrible betrayal of fundamentalists and conservatives across the country."

Liberal groups that support abortion rights are already preparing for a second confirmation battle over Justice O'Connor's replacement once the president decides on a nominee.

A.E. Dick Howard is a constitutional law expert at the University of Virginia.  He says replacing Justice O'Connor with a conservative justice could spark a confirmation battle more intense than the one over Judge Roberts.

"She [O'Connor] played a role, I think, of pulling the court somewhat to the (political) center, a centrist type of court because of her votes,? he noted.  ?And if her replacement turns out to be someone who is very conservative, someone like Justice [Antonin] Scalia, Justice [Clarence] Thomas, [the late] Chief Justice Rehnquist, then that could actually tip the balance of the court in some rather important areas."

With Justice O'Connor still on the court, there are presently six justices in favor of abortion rights and two opposed.  Judge Roberts is waiting to fill the vacancy of chief justice, but his stance on abortion is unclear.

If Judge Roberts turns out to be an opponent of abortion, a conservative replacement for Justice O'Connor could shift the pro-abortion margin on the high court down to 5-4.