Judge Ginsburg's changes in lecture may draw fire from anti-abortionists She had frowned on Roe ruling

June 18, 1993|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Supreme Court nominee Ruth Bader Ginsburg revised her most controversial public statement on abortion in the weeks before she was picked by President Clinton, making changes that show her to be more sympathetic to a woman's right to end pregnancy.

The changes are now being circulated quietly here by some of her supporters to offset doubts that she genuinely favors abortion rights -- doubts spurred by a university lecture last spring critical of Roe vs. Wade, the 1973 ruling creating a woman's right to abortion.

If lobbyists on either side of the abortion controversy now weighing their reaction to the Ginsburg nomination seize on the changes, it could provoke an angry reaction from anti-abortion activists, who, so far, have not protested strenuously. It also might test the tolerance of abortion rights activists who are making no public challenge yet.

When she gave the lecture at the New York University Law School in March, Judge Ginsburg made strongly negative comments about the Roe decision and made several approving comments about the Supreme Court's latest abortion ruling last year, cutting back on the constitutional right to abortion.

In April when those parts of the lecture were republished in a legal newspaper here, Legal Times, it stirred a wave of muttering among women's rights and abortion rights groups.

Now, the latest draft of the lecture being readied for publication by NYU adds a series of criticisms of the latest abortion ruling, lamenting its impact on poor and unsophisticated pregnant women.

One Washington lawyer, asked to analyze the changes, called them "humanizing changes, showing that she understands and cares about how [anti-abortion] laws impact the lives of women."

That lawyer, asking not to be identified, added: "They seem to say: 'I'm pro-choice, I'm pro-choice, I'm really pro-choice.' "

One of the more vivid examples of the revisions:

In the original March 9 lecture, the judge said that the Supreme Court's abortion ruling a year ago upholding Pennsylvania laws requiring women seeking abortions to wait 24 hours and get a state-required lecture against abortion was "a retreat" from the protection the Roe decision had given.

Then she added positively that the ruling had "prompted a renewed dialogue" that could lead to "an enduring resolution of this vital matter."

'Retreat from Roe'

In the latest revised version, the judge's lecture said the Pennsylvania decision "notably retreats from Roe, and further excludes from the high court's protection women lacking in the means to surmount burdensome legislation."

That new language is followed by a footnote, referring to an academic article by Sylvia A. Law, a NYU law professor and feminist scholar, commenting on the loss of access to abortion for "the poor, the unsophisticated, the young, and women who live in rural areas."

On the night of the lecture at NYU, according to an individual present, Ms. Law engaged in a heated conversation afterward with Judge Ginsburg about her remarks.

Ms. Law, now strongly supporting the judge's nomination, could not be reached for comment. She is one of a network of academics contacted by Barbara Allen Babcock, a Stanford law professor, several weeks ago to rally around Judge Ginsburg as a potential nominee.

dTC The new version of the Ginsburg lecture also adds a sharply critical comment about the original anti-abortion law struck down in Roe vs. Wade. It says that the Texas law "intolerably shackled a woman's autonomy."

The latest draft is sprinkled with such sentiments.

Judge Ginsburg's supporters here have no plans to put the revisions on public display, even though the changes are included in the version available from Judge Ginsburg's office and from NYU. "This couldn't be wielded in a big public way," said one legislative aide here after reviewing the revisions. That, the individual said, would only stir up potential objections to Judge Ginsburg from anti-abortion forces.

Although there has been little sign of any potentially serious opposition to Judge Ginsburg's nomination to replace retiring Justice Byron R. White, her public statements on abortion -- and particularly her comments at NYU -- have already become at least a sideline controversy that the Senate Judiciary Committee is likely to explore.

All of the changes in the lecture apparently were made before President Clinton chose her on Monday to succeed retiring Justice White, but during the weeks that the White House staff was considering her as a potential nominee.

The judge's husband, Martin Ginsburg, said of the changes: "That's the way it always goes with academic papers. None of this has anything to do with the selection of this judge. Is Ruth out there 'tacking' her views on this paper? Ruth doesn't 'tack' her views."

Academic procedure

He asked, rhetorically: "Would Ruth be inclined to do this because a group of people were saying they don't know where she stands?" And he replied: "No, I don't think so."

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