Thursday, October 06, 2011

Roe v Wade and the Thomas confirmation

20 years ago the confirmation hearings were being held for Clarence Thomas. His confirmation seemed assured until one of his assistants was called to testify. She told about him using coarse language and making the workplace unfriendly. Thomas was confirmed anyway but suddenly sexual harassment was the hot national topic. Ironically, sexual harassment was not the real issue in the confirmation hearing. Abortion was.

40 years ago abortion was slowly gaining acceptance. New York and Florida had legalized it and a teen-age girl "in trouble" might suddenly visit an aunt in one of those states. Had things been left alone the country probably would have come to terms with abortion or allowed it on a state-by-state basis.

Then, in 1973, the Supreme Court decided the issue nationwide in the case Roe v Wade. In order to justify their decision, they found a previously undiscovered right to privacy between a woman and her doctor. She might go into the office pregnant and come out without carrying a child but whatever happened during her visit was between her and her doctor.

Problem solved. No more national debate.

Except forcing a decision like this on people forced a counter-action. The Right to Life movement was born. They had two lines of attack. One was to amend the Constitution. The other was to pack the Supreme Court and try to have Roe v Wade overturned. The battle lines were drawn.

Changing the Constitution was always a long-shot and the likelihood of that happening have gotten even more remote. That left the Supreme Court as the battleground.

Since the 1980s, every Supreme Court nominee has been scrutinized for how he would vote on Roe v Wade. This peaked with the nomination of Robert Bork. Bork had a brilliant legal mind and was a obvious candidate for the Supreme Court. But, abortion-supporters worried that he was too brilliant. Since his views are fairly conservative, they feared that he would use his brilliance to convince other court members to vote against abortion. So, they did everything possible to discredit him. The irony is that he represented the winning side on Roe v Wade and much of the final opinion was copied from him. He had a vested interest in upholding Roe v Wade. It didn't matter. The campaign against him was so fierce that it led to a new verb - to be "Borked".

Since then conservative presidents have tended to choose blank slate candidates in order to give their detractors less ammunition. Thomas was an example of this. He had spent most of his career as an administrator rather than a judge.

Thomas's biggest asset was his sterling character. So that was where they attacked him.

The judiciary panel had already heard Anita Hill's complaints but they did not find her credible. If Thomas was so abusive then why did she change jobs to follow him?

But the NOW was sure that Thomas would be a vote against Roe v Wade so they wanted him stopped. So Ted Kennedy and Howard Metzenbaum started circulating rumors that something had come up in the private hearings that needed to be heard in public. The Senate broke its own confidentiality rules and had Hill testify. It didn't stop Thomas's confirmation but the following year was the "year of the woman" when a record number of women ran and were elected to office.

Several years later it came out that Bill Clinton had as president had gone far beyond anything that Thomas was alleged to have done. Where was the outrage? There was none. The NOW admitted that the outrage against Thomas had been manufactured. In fact, one NOW leader offered to give oral sex to Clinton for keeping abortion legal.

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