Bob Woodward's commentary {"The Abortion Papers," Outlook, Jan. 22} greatly exaggerated the significance of recently discovered internal memos that were circulated by several justices just prior to the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision. The very purpose of private, internal court memos is to allow the justices to work out the reasoning in their opinions and raise any potential problems free from public scrutiny and without having to carefully choose their words. Mr. Woodward incorrectly characterized the memos as "new evidence" that the justices viewed Roe as an "arbitrary" and "legislative" decision, beyond the court's judicial power. In fact, the memos reveal absolutely no disagreement about the court's principal ruling in Roe. Implicit in each of the three memos is the justices' firm conviction that women possess a fundamental right to make their own decisions, without government interference, about whether or not to have a child, including whether to have an abortion. The justices understood that the Constitution prohibits state laws that would reduce women's "choices" to either government-compelled pregnancy and childbirth or dangerous illegal abortion. The memos discussed by Mr. Woodward were written in the final stages of the drafting of Roe, after the court had concluded that it must protect this vital constitutional right and was considering how precisely it would do so. Whenever the court determines that a constitutional right is at issue, it must then go on to decide how to apply and protect that right. This inevitably requires the court to exercise its judgment and discretion, which is a necessary and proper part of the judicial function and not, as Mr. Woodward suggests, an improper legislating of social policy. The court has determined, for example, that the Fourteenth Amendment's guarantee of equal protection of the laws provides racial minorities the right to be free from state-sponsored race discrimination. The court applied this basic principle in Brown v. Board of Education, ruling that states may not maintain racially segregated public schools. Yet, recognizing the difficulties in dismantling a system of segregation that enjoyed official and public support, the court made the judgment not to order immediate desegregation, requiring instead that the transition be made "with all deliberate speed." The court was forced to address again the protection of this right when state and local officials refused to obey Brown, accusing the court (as do opponents of Roe) of exceeding its judicial power and usurping the role of state legislatures. Just as the court has exercised its judgment and discretion in applying the equal protection clause, the Roe memos reveal the court wrestling with the logical question of how it would protect women's right to choose abortion against attempts by the state to deprive women of that choice. Allowing the state to interfere at any point prior to birth requires some sacrifice of that right. Justice Marshall supported drawing the line at viability, wisely pointing out in his memo that prohibiting state interference only during the first trimester would inadequately protect women's reproductive freedom. Far from revealing a lack of confidence in Roe, the memos recognize that as the court stated in 1986, "Few decisions are more personal and intimate, more properly private, or more basic to individual dignity and autonomy, than a woman's decision . . . whether to end her pregnancy." KATE MICHELMAN Executive Director DAWN JOHNSEN Legal Director National Abortion Rights Action League Washington