Washington — So-called ``women's issues'' are among the pivotal ones bearing on whether Judge Robert Bork is confirmed by the Senate as a justice of the United States Supreme Court. Feminist groups, among them the National Organization for Women and various abortion-rights advocates, have been particularly vociferous in their opposition to the nominee to the high tribunal. They say he scares them.
Judge Bork responds that he can't understand why he is scary to women. He stresses that as a member of the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit he has more often than not supported women's employment rights and claims of pregnant women.
The nominee, however, has gained a reputation - rightly or wrongly earned - among civil rights advocates as being ``anti-women.''
Many opponents charge that he would limit future advances for women and retrench on standing decisions in the privacy area, particularly regarding abortion.
As an academic Mr. Bork sharply criticized Supreme Court rulings on abortion and contraception. On the bench he has rejected the longstanding concept of ``privacy'' as one that is entitled to constitutional protection.
Bork disagrees with those who would shield women's rights under the 14th Amendment's equal-protection clause. He argues that the ``intent'' of this Bill of Rights plank was to ensure only against racial discrimination - not gender bias.
Appearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee last week, the Supreme Court nominee explained that if the 14th Amendment is applied to women, it could result in mandating that females be drafted and sent into fighting units and even force unisex bathroom facilities.
It's not bathroom facilities, however, that Bork's opponents are worried about. It's abortion. If Judge Bork is elevated to the Supreme Court, he will likely have an early opportunity to address himself to this issue.
Observers say that an Illinois case, already on the Supreme Court docket, could could importantly affect the court's landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. That ruling places no government restrictions on abortion in the early stages of pregnancy. But it allows states to draw guidelines applicable after this period if the guidelines are not in conflict with individual rights.
The Illinois statute covers the specific issue of teen-age abortions and whether states may impose a waiting period before performing such an operation on a teen-ager so parents could be informed.
Earlier this month, a federal judge in Georgia struck down a similar state law, claiming unconstitutional violations of personal privacy and the right to anonymity. Georgia's law would have required a parent or other adult to accompany a young woman under 17 years of age to an abortion clinic to verify that her parents had been informed.
Enforcement of the Georgia decision has been delayed until the Supreme Court rules on the Illinois case.
Other aspects of the abortion and contraception issues are almost certain to come before the high court - perhaps during the term that starts Oct. 5. Among them: (1)the right of the federal government to withhold funds from family-planning clinics that provide abortion counseling and information; and (2)the legality of state laws designed to block the distribution of contraceptives to students in high school health facilities.
The White House has recently issued federal rules concerning the withholding of clinic funds. And Illinois Gov. James Thompson vetoed a bill banning the issuance of condoms to teen-agers.
How would Judge Bork vote on these issues? In his testimony, the Supreme Court aspirant avoided a direct answer - stressing that he would heed the Constitution and in most cases not disturb ``settled law.''
Those apprehensive about his views point to Bork's previous aversions to cloak a woman's privacy in constitutional protections.
They also point out that the nominee has clearly indicated that courts should show clear restraint in overthrowing state laws.
Testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee on the Bork nomination earlier this week, US Sen. Robert Packwood (R) of Oregon said: ``I am convinced that Judge Bork feels so strongly opposed to the right of privacy that he will do everything possible to cut and trim - and eliminate, if possible - the liberties that the right of privacy protects.''
During the last three years the Supreme Court has steadily enforced women's rights in the workplace - upholding maternity leaves, affirmative-action job preference for women under certain circumstances, statutes against sexual harassment, and the right of a woman not to be denied executive status for reasons of gender.
The court has been narrowly split on some of these rulings. Many women's groups fear that Judge Bork could easily tip the scales in the other direction.