A Misguided Try at Conciliation

President Clinton’s newly disclosed interest in nominating some judges to the federal bench who have publicly opposed the legal right to abortion is politically misguided; worse still, it would make for poor public policy.

The American people must move beyond the divisive rhetoric and unconscionable violence that have characterized the abortion debate in recent years. The aim should be to eliminate the need for abortion, not by banning the procedure or terrorizing doctors and patients but by preventing unwanted pregnancies. Yet because no birth control method is infallible--save abstinence--the federal government must continue to guarantee that women can safely exercise their legal right to an abortion.

During his campaign, Clinton said that he would appoint to the federal bench individuals who believed, as he does, in a woman’s right to have an abortion. Now the White House says Clinton meant his commitment to extend only to Supreme Court candidates, and not necessarily to appointees to lower courts.

This revisionist position will probably backfire for Clinton politically. Anti-abortion groups will no doubt dismiss his rhetoric--and even the appointment of a few outspoken anti-abortion judges--as a calculated effort to woo their support. But the effect on federal jurisprudence and on the access to abortions could be far more profound.


Last year the Supreme Court reaffirmed the right of a woman to terminate a pregnancy but permitted states to enact some restrictions. Lower federal courts will now become the arena for testing the constitutionality of those restrictions. Federal judges must lead the nation toward clarity and consensus on this issue and away from continued judicial dissent and violence at clinics.

We condemned the so-called “litmus tests” used by Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush to screen out many highly qualified pro-choice judicial candidates. (Together they appointed almost 70% of sitting federal judges.) Similarly, Clinton’s appointments should not rest solely on the strength of a jurist’s support for abortion rights.

Efforts to appease anti-abortion groups by appointing outspoken opponents of abortion are demeaning to Clinton and destructive to the nation. What American women need are unambiguous guarantees of safe access to legal services.