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Front And Center : On A Changing Supreme Court, Sandra Day O'connor Has Emerged As A New Power, Especially On The Issue That Will Not Go Away: Abortion

April 18, 1993|HOWARD KOHN | Contributing editor Howard Kohn's last piece for this magazine was "The Art of the Sprint." He is at work on a book about the civil rights movement

SANDRA DAY O'CONNOR WAS IN A CELEBRATOry mood. Her family had gathered for a Thanksgiving reunion at the Lazy B ranch in the southeastern New Mexico and Arizona desert--where, in the midst of coyotes, snakes and hot, killing winds, the Days have been running cattle for 112 years--and O'Connor could tally a long list of reasons to be thankful. Within a month she and her husband, John Jay, were to mark their 40th wedding anniversary. Her marriage with her law-school sweetheart, an accomplished corporate lawyer who pours out deliciously funny stories at the slightest excuse, was nothing short of inspirational, and they had successfully raised three sons into professional men. The rest of her family was in fine shape as well. The Lazy B was being cared for by her brother, Alan Day, who rides a quarter horse and oversees 2,000 profitable cattle on about 200,000 acres. The family's political tradition--inaugurated by O'Connor's own tenure in the Arizona Legislature--was being carried on by her sister, Ann Day, who last November had been elected to a second term in the Arizona Senate.

As for O'Connor herself, after nearly 12 years as an associate justice of the U.S Supreme Court, the first and only woman in her position, she had finally begun to come into her own, to live up to the premise that she is, arguably, the most powerful woman in the nation.

Yet at times over the Thanksgiving weekend, O'Connor fell into one of the funks that had become familiar to her family. The Lazy B, on the outskirts of modern life, is a sanctuary for her, a place she retreats to in order to get her bearings. And during this homecoming, she wrestled once more with a bedeviling fact: She is the one American woman who must define for all other American women the powers they have and don't have when it comes to the riveting issue of abortion.

Alan Day says they've talked about it more than once. "Not the court cases--she never discusses those with us--but she needs to let someone know the sheer agony she's gone though on the abortion question. She's caught in the middle. It's gruesome."

On almost every other issue, personal and political, O'Connor's thoughts usually run far below the surface. Years ago, she overcame any basic need to discuss what's eating at her, even with her family. "You keep your problems to yourself, you don't lose control--that's the way we were raised," says Ann Day.

Indeed, O'Connor is a woman of extraordinary resoluteness. In 1988, on the evening before she was to undergo a mastectomy for breast cancer, her schedule called for her to deliver a speech 200 miles from Washington. She made the seven-hour round trip by car, gave the speech, had the surgery, and, through a long period of recovery and treatment, did not miss a single day of work. She had chemotherapy on Friday afternoons, was low as a dog all weekend, then dragged herself to work on Monday mornings. Not until after the surgery did she tell her brother and sister of her cancer, and when she did, she was dry-eyed. "She never once cried on my shoulder," says Alan Day.

Having grown up valuing coolness and self-containment, O'Connor has always hesitated to thrust herself to the fore or even to be the object of attention. Being at the center of the national controversy over abortion, then, is her worst nightmare; it is as if someone had designed a situation just to put her at a disadvantage, to negate the qualities she has exhibited all her life. Like it or not, she has become the keeper of a whole society's dilemma, the lady with the scales in a battle magnified by seemingly unappeasable passions into Good versus Evil.

"She's in a no-win situation. Half the people will hate her, no matter what she decides," says her brother. "She dislikes it intensely that she can't put the issue behind her, but it's impossible. Every term there's at least one case with some facet involving abortion."

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