"A clear and present danger to American women"

Pro-choice activists criticize the appointment of conservative John Ashcroft as the Bush administration's attorney general.

By Daryl Lindsey

Published December 22, 2000 9:45PM (EST)

With the selection of former Missouri Sen. John Ashcroft as George W. Bush's attorney general Friday, conservatives -- who waited quietly in the wings as Bush promoted his "I'm a uniter, not a divider" message of tolerance -- got an early Christmas present.

"Ashcroft has a 100 percent anti-choice, anti-family-planning record. As attorney general, he would be a clear and present danger to American women," says Gloria Feldt, president of Planned Parenthood.

Throughout the campaign, abortion-rights groups warned that Bush's ambiguous stance on abortion issues was meant to hide his tough anti-abortion position in order to make him more palatable to moderate Republicans and crossover Democrats. Early on, Bush said he wouldn't make an anti-abortion stance a litmus test for court appointments, and his advisors even leaked pro-choice New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman as a possible candidate for health and human services secretary. (She was ultimately named head of the Environmental Protection Agency.)

But Friday, after Bush announced he would tap conservative Ashcroft, pro-choice groups pledged action to try to derail Ashcroft's confirmation by the Senate.

Feldt says her organization will organize its grass-roots base against the appointment and ask its members to rally their senators not to confirm him. "We will be making the point that if George W. Bush wants to unite the nation and not divide it, he should not have appointed Ashcroft," she says.

As a senator, Ashcroft (who suffered the ultimate humiliation of losing his seat to a dead man, Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan, whose widow Jean will now take his seat in the Senate) cast 43 votes on abortion and reproductive rights, with 42 of those votes aimed at overturning Roe vs. Wade, according to the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action Group. During an April 19, 1998, appearance on NBC's "Meet the Press," Ashcroft said that outlawing abortion was a higher priority for him than cutting taxes.

During his years on Capitol Hill, Ashcroft supported such controversial legislation as the Hyde Amendment, which banned the use of federal funds for abortions; he also cosponsored legislation calling for a constitutional amendment that would have banned abortion even in cases of rape or incest. Planned Parenthood's Feldt describes him as "one of the fiercest opponents of the right to choose during his tenure in the U.S. Senate."

As the nation's top lawyer, Ashcroft would be responsible for implementing federal laws, including legislation like the Freedom of Access to Clinical Entrances Act, which was enacted following the spate of abortion-clinic bombings and murders during the 1990s. Enforcement of such laws can be highly selective, and Ashcroft might not give it the priority Janet Reno did.

The announcement came as a double whammy to pro-choice activists this week. On Thursday, Bush picked Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson to be his administration's health and human services secretary. As governor, Thompson was a chief architect of the Wisconsin Works welfare reform program, which was a model for similar federal initiatives. Pro-choice advocates are wary of the Wisconsin governor because of his desire to ban abortion; but they don't have the outright contempt for him that they do for Ashcroft, because Thompson has supported family planning initiatives that reduce unwanted pregnancies and, thus, abortion rates. Nonetheless, they will still seek to stop his confirmation.

Since Al Gore's concession just over a week ago, conservatives have broken their silence and called on Bush to make Cabinet and judicial appointments of pro-life candidates.

"These two positions were clear payoffs to the anti-choice hard-liners who not only supported Bush but, at his request, stayed very quiet during the campaign because he didn't want it to become a big campaign issue," Feldt alleges. "He knows that the majority of Americans are pro-choice and the majority of Americans voted pro-choice. Al Gore won the popular vote."

But conservatives are lauding Ashcroft's resurrection from his post-Carnahan humiliation. "It's a splendid and obvious appointment. He graciously did not contest what we all thought was an unconstitutional and unfair way that his seat was taken away from him by a dead man," says Phyllis Schlafly, president of the Eagle Forum.

"Most of us are willing to cut George W. Bush a little slack and give him a chance to get going. He was reaching out to a lot of groups that didn't support him. So we're glad to see the Ashcroft appointment, which certainly shows him reaching out to people who did support him," Schlafly says.

Daryl Lindsey

Daryl Lindsey is associate editor of Salon News and an Arthur Burns fellow. He currently lives in Berlin and writes for Salon and Die Welt.

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Abortion George W. Bush