The Abortion Rights Lobby: Why Is John Ashcroft Public Enemy No. 1?

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When George W. Bush first announced his Cabinet nominees, a great outcry arose from America's abortion rights lobby. But despite the presence of two resolutely pro-life candidates (John Ashcroft and Tommy Thompson) on the presidential roster, pro-choice groups have chosen to concentrate their efforts almost exclusively on defeating Ashcroft.

All eyes on Ashcroft

For the past several weeks, every pro-choice group in the country, including NOW and NARAL, has joined forces in hopes of defeating Ashcroft's nomination for the post of U.S. attorney general — where he would be responsible for enforcing abortion laws and protecting abortion clinics. Nobody, on the other hand, seems particularly concerned with Thompson's nomination, although as head of HHS, he would exercise significant control over health care policy — and the dissemination of often controversial health-related information.

Ashcroft is widely expected to win confirmation, but the extended three-day hearing facilitated a vociferous opposition to his nomination, both in and outside the hearing room. Tensions rose as lobbyists like NARAL's Kate Michelman took the stand Thursday to rail against Ashcroft, painting his confirmation as the proverbial nail in the coffin of women's reproductive rights.

Others stood close by to defend Ashcroft's record and dismiss apocalyptic visions of burning abortion clinics. "John has made it very clear in the past that he believes that violence in front of abortion clinics is absolutely wrong, and that's the law and should be enforced," Senator Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), told CNN last week. Ashcroft insisted he will not allow his personal beliefs to influence the way he defends existing laws. "Roe v. Wade is the law of the land," he told the senators. "I know the difference between enforcement and enactment."

Thompson's hearings attract little attention

Meanwhile, Thompson flew under the radar, his confirmation hearings attracting virtually no press attention. The Wisconsin governor, who is outspokenly pro-life, is Bush's nominee to lead the Department of Health and Human Services — a post that guarantees as much if not more control over the practical application of women's reproductive rights than the AG job. In addition to controlling the dissemination of federally sponsored reproduction education materials, Thompson would oversee the FDA, the agency in charge of approving new drugs, including, most recently, RU-486.

The first time his name was mentioned, Thompson's potential nomination raised a few eyebrows. But enthusiasm for his reputation as a bureaucracy-buster and welfare reformer soon overshadowed most concerns. Enormously popular among many moderates, Thompson is the nation's longest-sitting governor with a reputation for no-nonsense leadership.

Hardliner on abortion, may question RU-486

In Wisconsin, Thompson approved bills restricting access to abortion and family planning services, including a 24-hour mandatory waiting period for women seeking abortions, a parental consent law, and a ban on certain abortion procedures that was eventually reversed by the U.S. Supreme Court. But Thompson has been quieter than Ashcroft about his opposition to abortion. That reticence continues today; if Thompson is looking for a fight from his Senate panel, he's doing it quietly. When asked during his hearings whether he would seek to repeal FDA approval of the controversial "abortion pill," RU-486, Thompson replied, "I don't intend to roll back anything unless it's proven to be unsafe." And although the FDA's approval is dependent upon positive results in extensive safety and efficacy tests, Thompson indicated he did not feel the case was necessarily closed to further analysis and possible future restrictions on the drug. "Safety concerns are something that's in question," he told a questioner.

Opposing Ashcroft means instant community, support

So why, given both men's reputations as pro-life activists, haven't the attentions of the pro-choice groups been more equitably focused between the two candidates? It may be, suggests Emory University legal historian David J. Garrow, that Ashcroft represents a threat — real or perceived — that Thompson simply cannot match. "In terms of forming an effective alliance, all the liberal interest groups have a stake in the leadership at the Department of Justice, whereas it's much harder to get everyone organized around and excited about Health and Human Services."

Ashcroft's past as a major force in pro-life litigation has also raised red flags among pro-choicers, says Garrow, while Thompson's reproductive rights history is a bit more ambivalent. "Missouri has been one of the most energetic right-to-life action centers — which makes Ashcroft a very familiar target," Garrow explains. Meanwhile, Thompson has come under heavy fire from pro-life groups (and earned the support of many research scientists) for his support of embryonic stem cell research.

And there's another, more practical impetus to form a coalition opposing Ashcroft, says Garrow. "Groups like NARAL that receive a large amount of funding from direct-mail campaigns need to fly their battle flags over these confirmation hearings in a highly visible way. So a lot of what we're seeing in terms of protest is driven by the budgetary needs of these organizations." In fact, says Garrow, these interest groups may be missing the point altogether. "People should be asking who the Bush Cabinet appointees are planning to name as under secretaries, for health, or evaluation, or population." That, after all, adds Garrow, is where the real decisions are most often made.