A Pro-Life Foreign Policy

At first glance, John Klink seemed like the perfect pick for the job. A veteran relief worker who'd helped impoverished refugees in Haiti, Thailand and Morocco, Klink surfaced earlier this year as George W. Bush's choice to head the State Department's influential Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration. He'd spent years as a United Nations adviser to the Vatican. But despite Klink's credentials, word of his possible nomination caused an instant uproar. A devout Roman Catholic, he has argued passionately against abortion, the morning-after pill and even using condoms to halt the spread of HIV--stands that have made him a controversial, and sometimes reviled, figure in the relief community. Now Klink's hopes are on hold, with religious groups backing his appointment and pro-choice activists vowing to derail it.

The plan to tap Klink is part of a careful Bush strategy designed to appease both sides in the abortion wars. At home the pro-life president has talked tough--vowing to beef up spending for abstinence education and floating the notion of Medicaid coverage for fetuses--but walked closer to the center, courting moderate voters by staying quiet on Roe v. Wade and approving limited funding for embryonic stem-cell research. But overseas it's another story. Bush has tried to mollify religious conservatives with far more aggressive anti-abortion policies in an area to which few Americans are paying attention: foreign policy.

It's a pattern the new president established on his very first day in the Oval Office. Bush declined to appear at a showy "March for Life" rally on the National Mall. But he did something more profound with the stroke of a pen: reinstating the Reagan-era "Mexico City policy," which bans U.S. aid to nonprofit groups abroad that offer abortion counseling. The move was a gift to conservatives who'd backed Bush's campaign. "This is payback time," says Janet Benshoof, president of the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy. Early this year Bush nominated E. Anne Peterson to head global programs at the U.S. Agency for International Development. A doctor who served as health commissioner in Virginia, Peterson opposed widening the availability of emergency contraception. Her nomination drew fire from pro-choice groups, since the morning-after pill is often used in refugee camps where rape is a common problem.

Bush also moved to reverse Bill Clinton's abortion policies at the United Nations. For years pro-life groups like the Family Research Council and the International Life League had been shut out of U.N. and World Health Organization meetings. Bush has given them new clout, inviting them to serve as part of official U.S. delegations. The administration is now embroiled in a bitter U.N. feud over September's Special Session on Children. The fight: whether the phrase "reproductive health services" includes abortion. The State Department has sent out an official cable stating that the United States "now firmly opposes" language that includes abortion. The cable warns that unless other countries side with the United States and the Vatican in changing the vaguely pro-choice language, the United States won't attend the summit. Most Americans have never even heard of the arcane semantic issue. But to religious conservatives, who finally feel like they have some influence in the West Wing, it is seen as a major victory. "We had our noses pressed to the glass for a long time," says Austin Ruse, president of the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute.

The foreign-policy shift hasn't gone unnoticed on Capitol Hill. Last week Democratic Reps. Nita Lowey and Carolyn Maloney sent a sharply worded letter to Secretary of State Colin Powell objecting to the U.S. delegation's "unreasonable and obstructionist positions" at the United Nations. In the Senate, Democrat Barbara Boxer held hearings in July on Bush's Mexico City policy and has introduced her own bill to reverse it. Klink's nomination, meanwhile, appears in jeopardy. The White House still has not submitted his name for confirmation; many opponents believe he'll never make it through the Democratic Senate. Klink may have another unlikely adversary: his would-be boss, Colin Powell. The secretary of State, who is openly pro-choice and is widely credited with preventing cuts in the family-planning budget, let it be known he was furious about the Klink pick.

If Bush drops Klink, however, he'll have to answer to disappointed Catholics. Still wounded after Bush's disastrous campaign visit to anti-Catholic Bob Jones University, the faithful had finally begun to feel appeased by his aggressive outreach efforts. (The White House even holds a weekly conference call with Catholic leaders, asking them for policy advice and giving updates on relevant issues, including Klink's chances.) Yet Bush's nuanced stem-cell decision was a letdown to many, and now, with fresh signs that Bush may be backing away from Klink, some wonder just how deep his commitment to the cause runs. "There's a lot of grumbling," says one participant in the weekly call. "If that phone call can't deliver Klink, then what's the phone call for?" If Klink's nomination is any indication, Bush may find that pushing a pro-life agenda abroad isn't any easier than it is at home.

A Pro-Life Foreign Policy | News