Nancy Keenan

WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)–The national debate over the nomination of John Roberts to the Supreme Court has shined the spotlight on women’s rights activists, for better or for worse.

NARAL Pro-Choice America and its new president Nancy Keenan experienced the downside when it came under heavy fire two weeks ago for airing a television ad that linked him with violent anti-abortion rights protesters who bombed abortion clinics.

After an onslaught of criticism from both ends of the political spectrum, the group announced on Aug. 11 it would pull the ad. But the leading abortion rights group reentered the fray on Friday with a softer-toned ad. It targets some of Roberts’ statements, in which he refers to a “so-called right to privacy” and his belief that Roe vs. Wade, the landmark case that legalized abortion, was “wrongly decided and should be overturned.”

While NARAL is keeping its dukes up, some said the incident nonetheless hurt the credibility of the Washington, D.C.-based abortion rights group.

“It matters how you play the game,” said Darrell West, a political science professor at Brown University. “If you’re seen as exaggerating or pushing the limits of fair play, you suffer the consequences of that.”

Others saw a silver lining in the controversy: more publicity for issues surrounding reproductive rights.

“It’s raised people’s consciousness,” said Linda Basch, president of The National Council for Research on Women in New York. “I like to think it had that kind of positive impact by making people aware of the stakes involved for women and for families in this Supreme Court nomination.”

A NARAL spokesperson did not return calls for comment.

Simmering Fights

Meanwhile, simmering fights have come to a boil. Chiefly the turbulence surrounds reproductive rights, with pro-choice groups warning that Roberts, if on the Supreme Court, will endanger the right to privacy found in the Constitution that laid the groundwork for the legalization of contraception and abortion.

Reproductive rights will figure prominently in the hearings, which are scheduled to begin on Sept. 6, predicted Deborah Rhode, a professor at Stanford Law School. “It’s pretty clear that that is an area where the court is deeply divided,” she said.

Pay equity, workplace discrimination, affirmative action and equal opportunity in sports and education are also coming to the fore.

To make their case, many women’s groups point to a 1981 memo in which they say Roberts disparaged some state initiatives to curb discrimination against employees. At the time, Roberts argued that, in addition to evidence of discrimination, an employee would need to prove that he or she is more qualified than the person hired, said Jocelyn Frye, director of legal and public policy at the National Partnership for Women and Families in Washington, D.C.

“If it were applied today, it would be very hard for women or people of color to bring employment discrimination claims successfully,” Frye said.

Frye also cited documents that show that Roberts argued to limit the scope of Title IX, the groundbreaking law mandating equality of opportunity for girls and women in sports and education. He initially argued that institutions whose students receive federal financial aid should not automatically be covered by the law and later argued that the law should apply to particular programs rather than entire institutions, Frye said.

Roberts also argued against using affirmative action policies to open job opportunities to women and people of color, Frye said, noting that he resisted a mandate that federal contractors set goals and timetables to diversify the work force.

“If they had pulled back on setting some basic goals and timetables for increasing their numbers, it would have severely undercut the implementation of that order,” Frye said.

Moreover, women’s groups take issue with the tone of some of Roberts’ comments, saying it indicates a hostility toward women’s rights. They point to him referring to “perceived problems” of gender bias and scoffing at the notion that elevating a woman to chief justice would close a “purported gender gap” and questioning whether homemakers who become lawyers “contribute to the common good.”

“Roberts has consistently interpreted laws protecting civil rights and women’s rights in a very restrictive manner,” Frye said. “All of these views when you look at them and analyze them raise some serious concerns.”

Anti-Choice Women Battle Back

Women on the other side of the political divide, meanwhile, are battling back. They formed a makeshift committee and held a “Women for Roberts” press conference Wednesday.

Participants–representing nearly 20 organizations–disputed allegations that Roberts was “anti-woman” and praised his qualifications.

They also agreed with some of his views that have drawn criticism, such as his stated belief that the concept of “comparable worth” amounts to “nothing less than central planning of the economy.”

These women laughed off calls for a woman to assume another seat on the Supreme Court, with one participant saying that the “best guarantor of women’s rights is the Constitution, not the double X chromosome.” And they have also implored senators to ignore what a one participant referred to in a written statement as the “hysterical cries” of “radical feminists.”

Roberts “doesn’t have a sexist bone in his body,” Linda Chavez, a columnist and commentator who worked with Roberts in the Reagan administration, said at the press conference. “What is happening is simply a last-ditch desperate effort on the part of feminists who lost those battles.”

Women’s groups are not the only ones focusing on women’s rights issues.

Women’s rights are “right at the top” of our list of concerns about Roberts, said Ralph Neas, president of People For the American Way, an advocacy group in Washington, D.C. The group, which is leading an effort to persuade senators to oppose Roberts when his nomination comes to the Senate floor, has compiled a 50-page report criticizing Roberts’ record, much of which is devoted to women’s issues.

Other issues are also at play. Activists have raised questions over Roberts’ position on voting rights, immigration, school desegregation, housing discrimination, separation of church and state and the roles of the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government.

Privacy, Civil Rights Paramount

But Neas said the issues of civil rights and privacy issues will trump others. While these affect a wide range of groups–particularly minorities, the elderly and the disabled–they are high-profile for women, who rely on privacy protections to ensure their legal right to contraception and abortion.

“There’s no question that he was part of a cadre of committed right-wing ideologues who did wage a comprehensive assault to turn back the clock and to overturn the bipartisan civil rights enforcement policies of past Republican and Democratic administrations,” Neas said, referring to Roberts, at a Wednesday morning press conference.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, intends to make sure women’s rights issues are a focal point of the hearings. In a speech on Wednesday she said she will personally question Roberts about his views on abortion.

She told members of the Los Angeles County Bar Association that, as the only woman on the Judiciary Committee, she had “an additional role to play, representing the views and concerns of 145 million American women during this hearing process.” She also noted that it would be difficult for her to vote in favor of Roberts if she believed he would overturn Roe vs. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that the constitutional right to privacy encompasses a woman’s decision to choose an abortion.

Connie Mackey, vice president of government relations at the Family Research Council, an anti-choice advocacy organization in Washington, D.C., took issue with that promise in a rhetorical retort.

“Senator Feinstein,” she said at the Women for Roberts press conference, “for too long, far-leftist organizations consumed with only one agenda, the pro-abortion agenda, have claimed they represent all women in general. Message No. 1; they do not.”

Allison Stevens is Washington Bureau Chief at Women’s eNews.

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