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On abortion issue, Roberts leaves both sides with doubts

WASHINGTON - For many of the activists who have dedicated themselves to the battle over the U.S. Supreme Court, abortion rights is the issue that unites them.

Yesterday, they got a chance to hear Judge John G. Roberts Jr. speak at length - and repeatedly - about the issue. But they didn't necessarily come away satisfied.

Supporters of abortion rights were frustrated that Roberts did not talk in greater detail about his thoughts on Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 case affirming abortion rights, and another seminal case, 1992's Casey v. Planned Parenthood of Pennsylvania, which revised the Roe decision but affirmed its core.

Opponents of abortion rights, who see Roe as ground zero for the legislative and judicial fight over social issues, gave Roberts' performance mixed reviews. While some conservative leaders praised his refusal to talk directly about Roe and other cases, some others reacted much more cautiously.

"Operation Rescue would like to remind Judge Roberts that while Roe v. Wade is indeed legal precedent, it is very bad precedent," Troy Newman, the leader of the anti-abortion advocacy group, said in a statement.

Sen. Sam Brownback, a Kansas Republican and one of two members of the Senate Judiciary Committee who did not get a chance to question the nominee for chief justice yesterday, said he was a bit surprised at how much Roberts said.

"I thought he defined himself much more than I thought he would," said Brownback, a staunch opponent of abortion rights.

Several Democrats on the committee said they wanted more candor from Roberts. But Sen. Richard J. Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, said he was pleased by what he heard.

"I'm sure both sides of the table heard things that surprised them, and both sides heard things that they wanted to hear," Durbin said. "I liked the fact that he said he was for the right to privacy. ... Whether it goes as far as I hope it will go remains to be seen."

Liberal interest groups - especially those focused on women's rights - weighed in with blistering criticism of Roberts' comments.

Nancy Northrup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights, said in a statement that Roberts had drawn "a large moat" around his views on the right to privacy.

"Unfortunately, we don't know any more today than we did yesterday about where Judge Roberts stands on whether or not the Constitution protects women's right to make their own private reproductive decisions," she said.

The questioning continues today, with Brownback and another socially conservative senator, Republican Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, set to lead things off. Brownback said he is not sure how much he'll ask Roberts about abortion, if only because the ground has been covered already. But he said he wished he could be more certain about what Roberts would do if presented with the opportunity to overturn Roe v. Wade.

"I wish we had a series of legal opinions by him, in which he discusses Roe," Brownback said.

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