Documents released by the National Archives have revealed that President George Bush's nominee to the US Supreme Court, Samuel Alito, expressed the view 20 years ago that the landmark Roe v Wade ruling, legalising a woman's right to abortion, should be overturned.
Judge Alito, 55, wrote in a memo to the solicitor general in 1985 that the government "should make clear that we disagree with Roe v Wade and would welcome the opportunity to brief the issue of whether, and if so to what extent, that decision should be overruled".
The memo, one of 45 documents made public by the archives in Washington, is bound to fuel controversy as the US Senate prepares to open confirmation hearings for Judge Alito on 9 January. He was picked by Mr Bush at the end of October to replace the outgoing Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.
Democrat senators on the Judiciary Committee this week urged the Bush administration to release all documents related to Judge Alito's seven years in the Justice Department, where he worked during the 1980s in the solicitor general's office and later as a deputy assistant US Attorney General.
In private meetings with senators since his nomination, Judge Alito has been trying to make the case that, as a Justice on the court, he would lay aside any personal beliefs he may have when hearing cases on sensitive issues, including abortion.
While his current opinions on abortion are not known, evidence has quickly accumulated of his opposition to it in the past. Paperwork released earlier showed he advised the solicitor general's office in the 1980s on how the 1973 Roe v Wade ruling should be dismantled piece by piece. He also suggested that the US Constitution does not guarantee abortion rights.
The abortion question remains one of the most divisive and emotionally charged socio-political debates in America. With the release of this latest document, Democrats will be under even greater pressure to press Judge Alito to explain his thinking on the issue today.
It will also stir grassroots opposition to Judge Alito's confirmation across the United States, while conservatives will rally to his cause. Judge O'Connor has defended abortion rights and has served as a critical swing vote on that and other social issues such as the death penalty.
Mr Bush can ill afford a drawn-out battle over Judge Alito's nomination. He has already suffered the embarrassment of having to nominate Judge Alito when his first choice, Harriet Miers, was forced to withdraw.
A poll by The Washington Post this week showed a majority of Americans supporting Judge Alito's confirmation.
In the memo, Judge Alito wrote that, while the then administration might not be advised to launch an all-out assault against Roe v Wade, it was in a position to explore restoring some authority to the state level to regulate access to abortions.
"It makes our position clear; does not even tacitly concede Roe's legitimacy, and signals that we regard the question as live and open," he argued at the time.Reuse content