Of course there was never any question what the hot-button issue would be when Supreme Court justices start announcing their retirements and President Bush begins sending the names of replacements to the Senate. It will be abortion.
That could be assumed from statements the president has made in the past in "pro-life" forums and from his description of Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas as model justices.
Any vestige of doubt was erased this week when President Bush made a telephone address to tens of thousands of abortion opponents at a rally on the National Mall marking the 32nd anniversary of the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion.
The president never mentioned the Supreme Court or Roe v. Wade, in his brief address, but there is no misreading of his reference to an "America of our dreams, where every child is welcomed ... in life and protected in law."
It is clearly the intent of the president, of his audience on Monday and of those Republican congressmen who went to the mall to make their speeches to turn back the clock to pre-Roe America.
Many of the people on the mall, and certainly all of the high school and college students in attendance, have no idea of what that America was like. They don't remember desperate women who learned they were carrying fetuses deformed by Thalidomide but were unable to get abortions in the United States. They did not know any of the thousands of women who were killed or scarred in abortions performed by back-alley practitioners. They were not among the unwanted children who were born to lives of neglect and abuse.
They are certainly entitled to be morally opposed to abortion. It is their right never to have one.
But while having an abortion is almost universally accepted as a procedure with troubling consequences, it is not universally accepted as an immoral act. The concept that life begins at the moment of conception is primarily a religious doctrine. From that doctrine rises the belief that abortions or stem cell research (which the president also opposes) are morally wrong. But it remains an issue over which people of different religions, sects or belief systems can disagree. As such, it is not an issue that should be dictated by the state.
President Bush was right Monday when he said, "the true culture of life cannot be sustained solely by changing laws. We need, most of all, to change hearts."
Abortion -- whether or not to have one -- is a matter of heart. It is a personal choice and a private decision.
In 1973, the Supreme Court properly recognized that a woman's decision to have an abortion is one she must make. She can choose to make that decision in consultation with her doctor, family members, friends or religious adviser. But neither President Bush, nor members of Congress, nor the justices of the Supreme Court, nor any of the thousands of protesters on the National Mall -- no matter their good intentions -- can demand to be part of her decision-making process or dictate to that woman what her choice will be. Not as long as this remains a free country.