Supreme Court nominee David H. Souter said yesterday that he has not decided what he thinks of the Supreme Court's 1973 abortion ruling and "would not go on the court saying I must go one way or I must go the other way" on the controversial case.

"I have not got any agenda on what should be done with Roe v. Wade if that case were brought before me," Souter said during his second day of testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee. "I will listen to both sides of that case. I have not made up my mind."

Pressed repeatedly, Souter also refused to state his personal opinion of abortion. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, the last nominee to be asked her opinion on the issue, told the committee in 1981 that she found abortion morally "repugnant."

Explaining his refusal to present his own views, Souter said committee members would understand that his personal opinion would "play absolutely no role" in his legal analysis of the case. Souter told Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) that although "you and I undoubtedly could agree it should not be so interpreted . . . I do not believe it would be realistic that a substantial number of people would share our views."

"What do you know and I know that's superior to the common sense of the American people?" Kennedy shot back in one of the sharpest exchanges of the hearings.

Souter was more expansive in describing his views on topics other than abortion, including church-state relations, sex discrimination and his theory of constitutional interpretation. His answers once again were in sharp contrast to those given three years ago by Robert H. Bork, whose nomination was ultimately rejected by the Senate, and left some aides to conservative senators exchanging worried glances.

"Nothing I heard this morning made me happy," one aide said during the lunch break.

But with Souter scheduled for one more day of testimony on Monday, it seemed unlikely that discomfort by either liberals or conservatives would jeopardize his nomination. Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), the committee chairman, appeared to consider confirmation almost a fait accompli, telling the nominee, "there are a number of issues you're going to have to confront" as a member of the court.

President Bush, speaking to reporters at the White House, said Souter, his first nominee to the court, "has gone as far as he possibly can {in discussing his views} and yet has handled it with such intellect and such a knowledgeable manner that I don't think anybody gets the feeling that he is improperly avoiding things."

Still, Biden and Kennedy were clearly frustrated with Souter's refusal to be more forthcoming on the abortion question.

"How can you intellectually justify telling me what test you will use relative to the equal protection clause {in handling sex discrimination cases} and not tell me what tests or principles you'll use relative to the issues relating to procreation?" Biden asked. Souter said the difference was that "there is no serious possibility" that the court would change its basic approach to sex discrimination.

Kennedy expressed concern over whether Souter has translated into practice the compassion he said he feels for those affected by his rulings.

Asked about an argument he made in 1970 while serving in the New Hampshire attorney general's office that a state literacy test for voters was valid because allowing illiterates to vote would "dilute" the votes of other citizens, Souter said it was simply "a mathematical statement."

Kennedy responded with a passionate defense of the voting rights of "poor people who haven't had the benefits of formal education" but can be intelligent and informed. "When you say it's really just a question of math whether it's diluted, that's something that I find troublesome," Kennedy said.

After the session, a number of abortion rights and women's rights groups, as expected, announced their opposition to Souter, who could provide the fifth vote for overruling the Roe decision.

Kate Michelman, executive director of the National Abortion Rights Action League, said the group "has no alternative" but to oppose Souter because of his "refusal to recognize that the Constitution protects the right to privacy including the right to choose" to have an abortion.

Souter was more specific in offering his legal views on subjects other than abortion.

Asked by Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) whether there should be a "wall" of separation between church and state, Souter said there are some problems with the First Amendment test the Supreme Court now uses to determine whether that wall has been breached. But he said he was "loath to talk about scrapping {it} without knowing what comes next" and that he had no "reason personally . . . to want to reexamine" the traditional view that the government must be strictly neutral toward religion, which has been criticized by some conservative justices.

Souter also seemed to disagree with the court's approach this year in upholding Oregon's refusal to make an exception in its drug laws for use of peyote in Native American religious rituals, a case in which five justices adopted a test that makes it difficult to challenge generally applicable laws as an infringement on the free exercise of religious beliefs. He expressed sympathy with O'Connor's view that the court should have examined the law under a more demanding test.

Although Souter stood by his actions as New Hampshire attorney general in defending then-Gov. Meldrim Thomson's order that flags be flown at half-staff on Good Friday and in fighting federal regulations requiring information about the racial composition of the state's work force, he said he probably would have ruled against the state in both instances had he been the judge in the cases.

When Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) repeatedly offered Souter the opportunity to join his attack on "activist" federal judges who "invented" rights, Souter declined.

Asked whether he shared Abraham Lincoln's fears about "government by the judiciary," as Grassley phrased it, Souter noted that Lincoln's comments came before the adoption of the 14th Amendment, which has been used to apply many provisions of the Bill of Rights to the states.

Asked about "unaccountable judges" who "create" constitutional rights, Souter said it was "essential" to distinguish between inventing rights and recognizing those "which are implicit in the text of the Constitution itself and which it is the . . . responsiblity of the judicary to find."

And at another point he offered a ringing tribute to Justice William J. Brennan Jr., whose retirement opened the way for his nomination, saying Brennan will be "remembered as one of the most fearlessly principled guardians of the American Constitution that it has ever had and ever will have."

Sen. Gordon J. Humphrey (R-N.H.) asked his constituent about his vote as a member of the board of Concord Hospital to allow physicians to perform abortions there after the court's Roe decision.

"Clearly, the hospital was under no obligation to begin performing abortions," Humphrey noted.

"We did not believe that it was appropriate for us, whatever might be the moral views of a given trustee, to impose those views upon the hospital when in fact it was the law of the United States that a given procedure was lawful," Souter responded.

He also said the hospital "had an obligation" to allow abortions to be performed with "the greatest degree of safety in medical care."

On the issue of affirmative action, Souter said he did not recall a speech in 1976 in which he was reported to have described affirmative action as "affirmative discrimination." He said the action he was criticizing involved distributing benefits "according to some formula of racial distribution, having nothing to do with any remedial purpose."

Specter told Souter that his testimony was "very much at variance" with his narrow view of constitutional interpretation in a New Hampshire Supreme Court case involving fees paid to probate judges. But Souter said his approach in the case was based not on "specific intent, but the principle intended" -- an analysis that Souter also said he would use to uphold Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 school desegregation case, even though the authors of the 14th Amendment did not contemplate desegregating schools.