White House Tries to Quell Abortion Rights Supporters' Fears About Sotomayor

By Robert Barnes and Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, May 29, 2009

The White House scrambled yesterday to assuage worries from liberal groups about Judge Sonia Sotomayor's scant record on abortion rights, delivering strong but vague assurances that the Supreme Court nominee agrees with President Obama's belief in constitutional protections for a woman's right to the procedure.

Facing concerns about the issue from supporters rather than detractors, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Obama did not ask Sotomayor specifically about abortion rights during their interview. But Gibbs indicated that the White House is nonetheless sure she agrees with the constitutional underpinnings of Roe v. Wade, which 36 years ago provided abortion rights nationwide.

"In their discussions, they talked about the theory of constitutional interpretation, generally, including her views on unenumerated rights in the Constitution and the theory of settled law," Gibbs said. "He left very comfortable with her interpretation of the Constitution being similar to that of his."

In a 2007 debate during the campaign, then-candidate Obama said, "I would not appoint somebody who doesn't believe in the right to privacy." The Supreme Court found that the right to privacy provided a woman the choice to terminate a pregnancy in its early stages.

The president's advisers could not point to a specific basis for Obama's belief that he and Sotomayor share the same view on the issue, other than their general conversation about judicial philosophies. In nearly 20 years as a district judge and on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit in New York, Sotomayor has not confronted constitutional questions about the issue.

Several aides said they do not think the issue came up in the preliminary conversations that Sotomayor held with White House staff before her interview with the president. And one senior adviser said the reports that were compiled by lawyers for Obama referenced only her relatively sparse legal record on the issue.

But White House officials appeared eager to send a message that abortion rights groups do not need to worry about how she might rule in a challenge to Roe v. Wade.

"He did not specifically ask, as we've stated for the past several days," Gibbs said. "But as I just said, I think he feels -- I know he feels -- comfortable, generally, with her interpretation of the Constitution being similar to that of his."

Officials said they had private conversations yesterday with groups on both sides of the abortion debate. Senior Senate Democrats said they expect that liberal Democratic senators will raise the issue with Sotomayor in private meetings next week on Capitol Hill.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), one of the Senate's leading abortion rights supporters, said she will not specifically ask Sotomayor about Roe but said she has no reason to doubt Sotomayor's position on the issue. "I feel as comfortable as I could possibly feel," Boxer said.

The abortion issue is likely to arise in Sotomayor's confirmation hearings in July, in part because of her background as a Catholic. But she is unlikely to offer any more clarity than have previous nominees. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., for instance, ducked the question during his 2005 hearings by saying that Roe is "settled as a precedent of the court."

Sotomayor is nominated to join a court that is fundamentally split on the issue. In its last major decision, the court ruled 5 to 4 in 2007 to uphold the federal Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act. It was the first time the court approved the ban of a specific abortion procedure and the first time it approved an abortion restriction that did not include an exception to protect the health of the woman.

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