Perception vs. reality on Alito and abortion

A new poll shows that only 18 percent of Americans think that Alito would vote to overturn Roe.


Tim Grieve
January 9, 2006 9:54PM (UTC)

A new Washington Post-ABC News poll finds a majority of Americans saying that Samuel Alito ought to be confirmed for a seat on the United States Supreme Court. However, the same poll shows that Americans may be misinformed about Alito's views on abortion rights.

Here's some of what we know about Samuel Alito's views on abortion:

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As a lawyer in the Solicitor General's Office, Alito wrote a memorandum in 1985 in which he urged his superiors to pursue a strategy to advance "the goals of bringing about the eventual overruling of Roe v. Wade, and in the meantime, of mitigating its effects." As part of that step-by-step strategy -- which anti-choice groups have, in fact, used in an effort to roll back Roe's protections -- Alito said: "We should make clear that we disagree with Roe v. Wade and would welcome the opportunity to brief the issue of whether, and if so to what extent, that decision should be overruled." Later in 1985, while applying for another job at the Justice Department, Alito said that he was grateful that he had been able to "advance legal positions in which I personally believe very strongly" while working in the Solicitor General's Office. "I am particularly proud," he said, "of my contributions in recent cases in which the government has argued in the Supreme Court . . . that the Constitution does not protect a right to an abortion."

As a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit, Alito -- alone on a panel of three judges -- voted in 1991 to uphold a Pennsylvania law that prohibited women from obtaining abortions without telling their husbands first. Alito said the law didn't present an "undue burden" on abortion rights. The Supreme Court said he was wrong. And in a 2000 case, Alito joined two other judges in reversing a New Jersey "partial-birth" abortion ban, but he did so narrowly, making it clear that a recently decided Supreme Court case on the issue left him no choice in the matter.

So what does the public know about Samuel Alito's views on abortion?

According to the Post-ABC News poll, only 18 percent of the public believes that Alito will vote in favor of overturning Roe -- the ultimate "goal" of which he wrote back in 1985. Twenty-six percent think that Alito will favor greater restrictions on abortion but not overturn Roe -- the "in the meantime" position Alito laid out in 1985. But 38 percent of the public thinks that Alito will vote in ways that do nothing at all to significantly alter Roe's protections -- a prospect that seems possible if only all the clues we've got so far are wrong.

Does it matter? A Gallup Poll taken in November seems to say so: When Gallup asked respondents if they would want Alito confirmed if they believed that he would vote to overturn Roe, 53 percent said no. Taken together, the polling numbers suggest that there's still an opening for pro-choice activists and other Alito critics to make progress by educating the public -- but also that they haven't done enough of that yet.


Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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