In the 1998 movie "Pleasantville," Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon play typical '90s American kids who are inadvertently transported into the unreal reality of a 1950s sitcom. They use their '90s values to teach the sitcom world some lessons about diversity and tolerance.

Today many people have a stylized, "Pleasantville" vision of the pre-Roe era in which I grew up. They imagine fondly that almost all families had a Daddy at the office and a Mommy in the kitchen; that almost all family relations were well-ordered and unthreatening; in short, that life looked like "Leave It to Beaver" - and that, with a few legal adjustments, it could do so again.

The conservative movement has spent the last 20 years working to roll back social progress and make this fantasy a reality. It is time to stop seeing the fate of Roe as a Beltway parlor game. What really hangs in the balance in the Supreme Court nomination of Samuel Alito are the fundamental rights to privacy, dignity, and autonomy - rights that transcend partisan politics, shape the course of our daily lives, and lie at the heart of who we are as Americans.

Conservative ideologues are simply wrong about the 1950s. Fans of the decade seldom mention that, with women's autonomy and earning power severely limited, poverty was a constant threat. According to the Census Bureau, in those days almost 20 percent of American families lived in poverty, as did more than 40 percent of families headed by women - in both cases, roughly double today's rates.

Doctors and social workers were reluctant to report child or spousal abuse, and many women died from unsafe abortions each year.

I know, for I grew up imagining a "Leave It to Beaver" future for myself.

But when my husband abandoned our marriage, I fell overnight from stay-at-home mother of three to single pregnant welfare parent. To support my family, I faced hurdles I had never imagined: the difficult decision not to continue the pregnancy, the humiliating interview with a hospital board seeking to prove me "unfit" to have a child in order to have a "therapeutic" abortion and avoid the back alleys, and the requirement to seek the permission of the man who deserted me and my family. Still, I was fortunate - many women in my situation had no choice but to seek illegal abortions, and too many died as a result.

We have traveled too far since then to even imagine a return to those conditions.

Samuel Alito's public record shows unequivocally that he is out of step with Americans on each of those fundamental issues - that he has chosen to reside in a 1950s that never really was, rather than the new century in which the rest of us live.

He believes that the state needs to assist women in recognizing the moral dimensions of their decisions - not only abortion but the forms of birth control, such as the Pill and the IUD, that are the most effective ways to prevent unwanted pregnancy. He sought to uphold abortion restrictions that would have treated a grown married woman no differently from a child, forcing her to notify her husband in all circumstances, including abuse and rape, before obtaining an abortion.

As Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote in her decision overturning these restrictions, "Women do not lose their constitutionally protected liberty when they marry." Judge Alito seems not to have grasped this fundamental fact of modern American life.

Alito seems as well not to think much of women's constitutionally protected right to equality in the workplace - a right that women today take for granted.

He has repeatedly sought to limit women's right to fight employment discrimination in the courts, even in the most extreme cases, intervening where juries had already found in favor of a woman. He has opposed the affirmative action initiatives that opened the doors for a generation of women and minorities. He seems not to have believed women and minorities deserved equal access to his own educational institution, Princeton University.

Since the Constitution was framed, Americans have understood the right to privacy as fundamental to human dignity and freedom. Yet it appears that this is a core American value that Judge Alito does not share.

In December we learned of Judge Alito's low opinion of privacy rights for all Americans - as exemplified by his eagerness to help the Reagan administration chip away at protections against government eavesdropping.

Today our privacy rights are under threat in arenas very far from the doctor's office. It is against this backdrop that women and men whose views on politics differ profoundly - but who share the belief that part of the genius of the American way is its preservation of a personal sphere where government's writ cannot reach - should view Judge Alito's nomination.

Senators should reach across party and ideological lines to reject the Alito nomination, not because we think he will vote to overturn Roe, but because we know he will not respect the dignity and autonomy that are a central part of what it means to be American - for all of us.

Boston Globe