WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court is the focus of increasingly intense abortion debate prompted by campaign charges that President Reagan, if reelected, will make opposition to abortion the litmus test in selecting new justices.
Democratic presidential nominee Walter Mondale accused Reagan in last week's presidential debate of giving the 'religious right' veto power over new judges by running on a platform pledged to test potential candidates for judgeships on their views on the 'sanctity of life.'
Such a test would be 'the first religious test in the history of our nation' for holding an office, Mondale claimed.
On the heels of his charges came a threat to the life of a Supreme Court justice, allegedly from a violent anti-abortion group. The FBI is investigating a 'very menacing' letter sent to Justice Harry Blackmun, who wrote the court's landmark 1973 ruling legalizing abortion.
Also last week, the court was confronted with a plea to block an abortion for a deaf, mute and blind woman who became pregnant after she was raped, and a request to give a religious burial to 16,500 aborted fetuses.
Before the court could take action in those two cases, Mondale's running mate, Geraldine Ferraro, raised the abortion issue in her debate Thursday with Vice President George Bush. Reiterating Mondale's charges, she said Moral Majority leader Jerry Falwell, a strong supporter of Reagan, 'had been told that he would pick two of our Supreme Court justices.'
Reagan's position has been that abortion should be banned except in cases where a woman's life is in jeopardy while Mondale supports the view that women should have the choice.
Appointing Supreme Court justices has been a recurring theme in the campaign, with Democrats arguing that the advanced age of many justices means the next president will be able to pick enough replacements to shape the court into the next century.
Five of the nine justices are 75 years or older, leaving open a substantial possibility several will depart the bench sometime in the next four years.
However the justices may feel about being the topic of political debate, they were faced last week with the realities of the sensitive abortion issue.
Security at the high court was stepped up in response to the death threat against Blackmun, 75. He received a letter, allegedly from the 'Army of God,' which has claimed responsbility for attacks on abortion clinics around the country.
A day before the threat became public, the justices were subjected to a rare outburst during one of their daily public sessions. A California man protesting the court's 1973 abortion ruling shouted 'Thou Shalt Not Kill' at the justices.
At the end of the week, Chief Justice Warren Burger took the unusual step of halting an abortion for the 19-year-old institutionalized woman, who was nearly six months pregnant. A lawyer, who said he represented the fetus, argued the abortion would violate 'the child's right to life.'
Burger, reminded by the woman's lawyer that no Supreme Court ruling protects a fetus that is not viable, lifted his 24-hour stay and allowed the procedure to take place.
In a separate case, Justice William Rehnquist weighed the question of allowing Los Angeles County to destroy aborted fetuses for nearly a week while he considered a request from a Roman Catholic group to arrange a religious burial. Lower courts held turning over the fetuses to the religious group would be entangling church and state.
While carefully keeping above the political fray, the justices cannot help but be affected by the turmoil surrounding the emotionally charged issue of abortion.