Antiabortion Group Changes Tune on Sotomayor

What do the nominee's ties to a Puerto Rican advocacy group say about her abortion stance?

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By Dan Gilgoff, God & Country

On the eve of Barack Obama's first nomination to the Supreme Court, Americans United for Life analyzed nine potential Obama picks. Although the influential antiabortion group was predictably downbeat about all of them, it was most favorable toward Sonia Sotomayor.

To the extent that Sotomayor's previous decisions touched on abortion, the Americans United for Life analysis said, she had sided with opponents of abortion rights. One of her circuit court decisions upheld a federal ban on funds to abortion providers overseas. "The Supreme Court has made clear that the government is free to favor the anti-abortion position over the pro-choice position," Sotomayor wrote.

In another opinion, Sotomayor overturned a lower court's decision against a group of antiabortion protesters.

The Americans United for Life analysis didn't go so far as to praise Sotomayor. But in a document that slammed other potential Obama high court nominees for putting "pro-abortion ideology above judicial duty" and for "ignoring the American public's opposition to the use of taxpayer dollars to directly or indirectly subsidize abortion," Sotomayor was the one figure about whom AUL appeared somewhat hopeful.

Today, AUL President Charmaine Yoest will be the sole antiabortion activist to testify against Sotomayor before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Seven weeks after Sotomayor's nomination, AUL's line has changed. A lot. The group has launched a website dedicated entirely to exposing Sotomayor's "radical pro-abortion agenda." Here's a taste:

. . . [T]here are strong reasons to believe that, if confirmed, she will follow the most extreme agenda possible. Her record of abortion advocacy indicates that she would not only uphold the current regime of abortion-on-demand in all nine months of pregnancy for any reason, but go even further—seeking to radically reinterpret the Constitution by making abortion a fundamental right (like freedom of speech) eliminating more than 500 state and federal abortion laws supported by the vast majority of the American people.

What's happened since AUL issued its soft-on-Sotomayor analysis in May? We've learned of Sotomayor's 12-year stint on the governing board of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund (PRLDEF). During those years, the group filed briefs supporting abortion rights in at least six high-profile cases. One argued that the right to have an abortion is a fundamental one, worthy of the highest bar of judicial protection—"strict scrutiny"—when it comes to assessing the legality of abortion restrictions.

So when senators begin asking Sotomayor about her views on abortion rights, her affiliation with the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund will be front and center.

I see two general lines of questions. One is how involved Sotomayor was in filing the Puerto Rican group's abortion briefs. The other is whether her views on abortion rights have changed since then; Sotomayor stepped down from the board in 1992.

Answers to this second question could be especially illuminating, surprising both abortion rights supporters and opponents. After all, deducing a judge's abortion rights position from a 17-year-old affiliation could lead to pretty shaky conclusions.