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Abortion-rights group to pull Roberts ad

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WASHINGTON — An abortion-rights advocacy group, under pressure to withdraw an advertisement that describes Judge John G. Roberts Jr. as "one whose ideology leads him to excuse violence against other Americans," announced Thursday night it would replace the advertisement, which had drawn widespread criticism as being false and misleading.

The advocacy group, Naral Pro-Choice America, an nounced its decision in a letter to Sen. Arlen Specter, the Pennsylvania Republican who is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and a longtime supporter of abortion rights. Earlier in the day, Specter urged Naral to withdraw the 30-second spot, calling it "blatantly untrue and unfair."

In the letter to Specter, Naral's president, Nancy Keenan, said the debate over the advertisement had "become a distraction from the serious discussion we hoped to have with the American public," and that the group would replace the advertisement with a new one.

Keenan said the group would continue to oppose Roberts' nomination to the Supreme Court and would "continue to educate the public about the threat we firmly believe Mr. Roberts' elevation to the Supreme Court would have on American women's reproductive health and, ultimately, their lives."

The advertisement, which centered on Roberts' involvement in an abortion-related Supreme Court case in the early 1990s and linked him with support for violent clinic protesters, began appearing Wednesday morning on cable television stations across the country and broadcast stations in Rhode Island and Maine, states that are home to centrist Republican senators who support abortion rights.

Naral said it would take down the advertisements, which cost $500,000, as quickly as possible. The replacement campaign, which Naral officials said would begin airing Monday, will examines Roberts' records on several points, the officials said, including an argument he made as a government lawyer in 1991 that Roe v. Wade was "wrongly decided."

The advertisement had spawned intense criticism from Republicans, a handful of Democrats, an independent watchdog group called Factcheck.org, and even some supporters of abortion rights, who felt it was hurting their cause. Specter made that argument in his letter on Thursday to Ms. Keenan.

The senator wrote, "When Naral puts on such an advertisement, in my opinion it undercuts its credibility and injures the pro-choice cause."

Some prominent Democrats said they agreed with Specter. Lanny Davis, a top official in the administration of former President Bill Clinton, said in an interview on Thursday that he had been making phone calls to liberal advocacy groups urging them to denounce the advertisement, which he called "inaccurate, filled with innuendo and shameless."

The advertisement centered on an argument Roberts made to the Supreme Court in the case of Bray v. Alexandria Women's Health Clinic, which the court heard when Roberts was working in the first Bush administration as deputy solicitor general.

At the time, abortion clinics had become the target of increasingly violent demonstrations by a group called Operation Rescue. The question before the court was whether federal judges could put a stop to those protests by invoking an 1871 anti-discrimination law that was intended to protect freed slaves from the Ku Klux Klan.

Roberts, acting on behalf of the first Bush White House, filed a friend-of-the-court brief and argued successfully that the Ku Klux Klan Act did not apply. The case was particularly appalling to abortion rights advocates because the lead plaintiff, Michael Bray, had been convicted of clinic bombings.

Roberts' actions in the case attracted little notice at first, but became controversial in the summer of 1991, after a particularly violent spate of clinic protests in Wichita, Kan. In an interview with "The MacNeil-Lehrer News Hour" at the time, Roberts defended himself and the first Bush administration.

"What we did not do is take a position supporting the activities of the Operation Rescue protesters," he said at the time. "There's been some confusion about that and I want it to be clear."

In its advertisement Naral linked the Bray case with a subsequent clinic bombing. The 30-second spot opened with a scene of devastation, the bombing of an abortion clinic in Birmingham, Ala., in 1998 — years after Roberts argued the Supreme Court case. It features Emily Lyons, a clinic employee who was severely injured. "When a bomb ripped through my clinic, I almost lost my life," Lyons says. Then Roberts' image appears, superimposed over a faint copy of his legal brief.

"Supreme Court nominee John Roberts filed court briefs supporting violent fringe groups and a convicted clinic bomber," a voice says. It concludes: "Call your senators. Tell them to oppose John Roberts. America can't afford a justice whose ideology leads him to excuse violence against other Americans."

The advertisement clearly put Democrats in an uncomfortable position, and many of them, including members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, remained largely silent during the fury over it.

Specter's Democratic counterpart on the judiciary panel, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, said in an interview with The Associated Press that he wished interest groups on both sides would stop their advertising campaigns. "I am not saying they shouldn't do what they do," he was quoted as saying. "I just wish they didn't."