According to numerous reports, conservative Supreme Court nominee John Roberts testified that he believes the U.S. Constitution contains a right of privacy, backing away from a memorandum he wrote during the Reagan administration in which he summarized arguments against a privacy right.

The question of Constitutional protections for privacy are of tremendous importance because they underpin critical Supreme Court decisions, including the landmark Roe v. Wade decision which gives women access to abortions.

“The right to privacy is protected under the Constitution in various ways,” Roberts said today. But he stopped short of discussing the sensitive topic of abortion directly.

Although the Constitution doesn’t mention the word “privacy,” Supreme Court rulings have established that many of the rights that are specified in the Constitution — such religious freedoms, limits on warrantless searches, and even the right to be free of soldiers in your home — all point to the idea that privacy rights live within the scope of those rights. As such, the Court has held that privacy rights are also part of the freedom to marry and procreate as well as to have access to abortions and to use contraceptives.

Roberts’s views had been in question, in part because of the language he used in a 1981 Justice Department memo, referring to the “so-called ‘right to privacy.'” Roberts explained that the memo didn’t contain his personal views, rather that his assignment in writing the memo was the summarize the arguments of former Harvard Law School Dean Erwin Griswold, who had at the time given a speech criticizing the high court’s privacy cases.

Roberts also suggested he would be slow to overturn such Supreme Court decisions as the 1992 Planned Parenthood v. Casey ruling that reaffirmed the constitutional right to abortion established in the 1973 Roe v. Wade case. He said the Casey decision was a “precedent of the court entitled to respect under principles of stare decisis.”

Stare decisis is the Latin term for the principle that, once the court decides and issue, it generally won’t go back and change its mind on well-settled rulings.

“It is a jolt to the legal system when you overrule a precedent,” Roberts told the Senate. “Precedent plays an important role in promoting stability and evenhandedness. It is not enough to think the prior decision was wrongly decided.”

For those who are concerned about protecting individual privacy rights, Roberts’s words are informative but not ultimately comforting. While he’s not prepared to create havoc by rolling back a generation’s reliance on these decisions, he is certainly leaving open the possibility that, if given the opportunity to further narrow these rights, he could still do so. This is what still concerns many, and rightly so.

One set of concerns is explained by Bill Scher in an entry at Huffington Post:

If Roberts’ definition of privacy rights encompasses the views of “every justice” — including Justices Scalia, Thomas and the late William Rehnquist — then it has nothing to with the privacy right that currently underpins the right to an abortion and the right to be gay. Because the three tried to squelch those rights.

Even Roberts’ seemingly explicit embrace of Griswold v. Connecticut was shady. Griswold is the case which concluded there is a broad right to privacy inherent in the Constitution, and was a precursor to Roe v. Wade. But when Roberts endorsed Griswold, he did not endorse its ruling that there is a broad right to privacy. He only said, “I agree with the Griswold court’s conclusion that marital privacy extends to contraception.” Just marital privacy!