Nearly a quarter of a century ago, John G. Roberts Jr. wrote skeptically about the legal concept that underpins a woman's right to an abortion, calling it "the so-called right to privacy." Yesterday, when pressed by a Republican senator about his writing, the Supreme Court nominee said he believes that the Constitution contains such a right, but he refused to say whether it covers the termination of a pregnancy.

At issue was a Dec. 11, 1981, memo that Roberts wrote to then-Attorney General William French Smith, in which he referred to "the so-called right to privacy" and said that a speech by former solicitor general Erwin N. Griswold showed that he believed, "as we do," that such an amorphous right does not exist in the Constitution.

"Do you believe today that the right to privacy does exist in the Constitution?" asked Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Roberts replied: "Senator, I do." Asked to square that statement with what he had written more than two decades ago, Roberts replied that he had merely summarized the views of the former solicitor general.

Roberts did not mention, however, that Griswold's speech did not refer, as he did, to the "so-called right to privacy." And Roberts did not say yesterday whether he believes that the right to privacy applies to abortion.

Instead, he repeatedly parried such questions by saying that it would be inappropriate for him to discuss issues that could come before the court.

"We still do not have clarity on his views," said Kate Michelman, former president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, which opposes Roberts's nomination.

-- Jo Becker