Culture Wars Invade Cordial Sotomayor Hearing

Norma McCorvey, 61, was arrested after she and another anti-abortion protester started shouting during Sonia Sotomayor's confirmation while Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) was making his opening remarks. McCorvey is better known as "Jane Roe" of the 1973 Roe v. Wade case. Video by AP
By Ann Gerhart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 14, 2009

It was but a blip of perhaps 20 seconds, a hiccup in an orderly, polite proceeding, some shouted words about abortion being wrong.

Heads swiveled toward the back of Room 216 in the Hart Senate Office Building, where Judge Sonia Sotomayor had been sitting at a table alone for hours, pleasantly impassive, waiting her turn to speak. The final senator on the Judiciary Committee was giving his opening statement; Minnesota Democrat Al Franken is the newest, so he went last.

A group of citizens was being ushered quietly from the room. The public, too, had been taking turns all day, 50 at a time, lining up for free tickets to see democracy at work. On the way out, an older white-haired woman turned to yell about overturning Roe v. Wade, then slipped through the door, where Capitol Hill police promptly arrested her.

She was Norma McCorvey, 61 -- Jane Roe herself.

With that, the culture wars that the Obama administration has so carefully tried to avoid forced their way back into full view.

The tensions in American society over social issues often seem to be receding, as two wars and a limping economy claim the focus of the country, and a younger generation shows itself more tolerant of a variety of personal and lifestyle decisions. Political headlines skip from one celebrification to the next -- Ensign, Sanford, Palin.

But the people to whom abortion matters most have a long attention span and are focused on 20 or 30 years down the line. Sotomayor is 55. If confirmed, she is likely to have decades ahead of her on the nation's high court. Her position on abortion isn't publicly known.

In 1971, McCorvey was poor and pregnant, from rape, she said. She became the plaintiff, Jane Roe, in the famous Supreme Court case that overturned the existing laws against abortion in 1973. Years later, she had a change of belief and became an antiabortion activist.

Yesterday, she was one of four who were arrested and charged with disorderly conduct -- disrupting Congress. Capitol Hill police also arrested Robert James of Virginia, Andrew Beacham of Indiana and Francis Mahoney of Florida. Each had the briefest of outbursts at various points throughout the day, timed to coincide with Democratic senators' remarks.

All appeared to be players in the shock street-theater troupe of Randall Terry, who founded Operation Rescue 20 years ago and yesterday brought his provocative props to his latest venue. Outside the Hart Building, Terry and his band brandished posters of aborted fetuses and children's coffins holding dolls covered in stage blood. A demonstrator dressed in a judge's robes carried the sickle of the Grim Reaper.

It was a rare eruption during a day that seemed choreographed to emphasize cordiality, even deliberate blandness.

Sotomayor, in a brilliant blue jacket, sat still during the polite and often-labored opening statements of 19 senators. Her hands remained flat on the table before her, a pad for note-taking untouched. Her broken right ankle was encased in a knee-high walking cast.

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