Sotomayor on abortion: "I follow the law"

Try as they might, Republican senators aren't getting the Supreme Court nominee to talk personal politics

By Tracy Clark-Flory
July 16, 2009 1:01AM (UTC)
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Despite three days of questioning, Sonia Sotomayor's interrogators have failed to coax out a confession of her personal position on abortion. That is despite the handful of Republican senators who have tried tirelessly over the past few days to chip away at Sotomayor's cautious legalese to confirm their suspicion of a hidden pro-choice agenda. Those of us on the other side of the repro-rights divide have been watching the proceedings -- or, in my case, have had it playing in the background with ears tuned to pick up any mention of the "a" word -- and anxiously sorting through the evidence that her questioners turn up. The truth, though, is that we know about as much as we did before the hearings began.

At least, that was the conclusion I'd come to, but I gave Nancy Northup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights, a call last night to see whether I had missed the greater significance of Sotomayor calling Roe v. Wade "settled law" or acknowledging that abortion is a public health issue. She told me, simply: "We're still engaged in the confirmation two-step, there is a game being played about how we talk about Roe vs. Wade and its progeny" -- and it's still being played during today's hearing. Headlines mentioning Sotomayor and abortion are leading on the Web sites for the New York Times and the Washington Post, but the general takeaway is: Sorry, her lips are sealed.


First, Sen. John Cornyn tried to determine whether she had spoken with administration officials about her views on abortion and her answer was simple: Nope. "You just have to look at my record to know that, in cases I address, I follow the law,” she said. Later, Sen. Tom Coburn asked her to explain her understanding of "the settled law in America about abortion." She responded: 

In Planned Parenthood versus Casey, the court reaffirmed the core holding of Roe versus Wade, that a woman has a constitutional right to terminate her pregnancy in certain circumstances. In Casey, the court announced that in reviewing state regulations that may apply to that right, that the court considers whether that regulation has an undue burden on the woman’s constitutional right. That’s my understanding of what the state of the law is.

In other words: She's familiar with recent Supreme Court history -- which should not come as a revelation to anyone. Then Coburn pushed for the personal: "Let’s say I’m 38 weeks pregnant" -- talk about a far-fetched hypothetical -- "and we discover a small spina bifida sac on the lower sacrum, the lower part of the back, on my baby, and I feel like I just can’t handle a child with that. Would it be legal in this country to terminate that child’s life?" Sotomayor said she couldn't answer the question "in the abstract" and "would have to look at what the state of the state’s law was on that question and what the state said with respect to that issue.” Gosh, this woman, so concerned with the law! Just who does she think she is, a judge or something? 

Oh, right. You could say that she's simply playing the game, or doing the "confirmation two-step," as Northup put it, just as nominees always have. More optimistically, you might say that she's simply dedicated to doing her job. 

Tracy Clark-Flory

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