Taking Aim At Abortion

The anniversary of Roe v. Wade has become a rite of passage for new presidents. Falling right after Inauguration Day, when the press, lawmakers and interest groups are scrutinizing every utterance from the incoming administration, it's an opportunity to send an explicit message about abortion rights. Bill Clinton used the Jan. 22 date eight years ago to reverse a Reagan-era ban on federal funding for overseas family-planning groups that offer abortion or abortion counseling. Last week, 28 years after the Supreme Court established a constitutional right to abortion, George W. Bush reversed Clinton's reversal. "We share a great goal," he said in a statement to anti-abortion protesters, "to work toward a day when every child is welcomed in life and protected in law. We know this will not come easily, or all at once."

With only three solid votes on the current Supreme Court to overturn Roe, Bush realizes that a frontal assault on abortion is impossible. Instead, the White House and congressional allies intend to chip away at Roe incrementally using executive power, budget decisions, appointments to the federal bench and legislative maneuvering until retirement or mortality creates an opening on the high court. "We'll work at the margins," said one administration official involved in the planning.

Allies think Bush is playing it smart. "He is doing it exactly right," said South Carolina Attorney General Charlie Condon, a Bush supporter familiar with the president's thinking on the issue. But for abortion-rights advocates, the combination of last week's executive action and the highly likely prospect of John Ashcroft as attorney general add up to their worst fears. "People are very, very angry," said Kate Michelman, president of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, adding that she has been bombarded with regrets from women who voted for Bush thinking he was a moderate on abortion. "I feel like saying, 'I told you so'," she said.

Medical research could be the next battlefield. During President Clinton's first week in office in 1993, he lifted a moratorium on federal funding for research into fetal tissue, which has proven promising in the treatment of Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's and other serious illnesses. And this spring the National Institutes of Health is scheduled to begin funding grants for research on embryonic stem cells, building blocks that scientists believe can be used to generate a variety of cells to combat disease (insulin-making cells for diabetics, for example). But late last week Bush strongly signaled his opposition to federal funding for both fetal- and stem-cell research. Although such a rollback would require congressional action, Bush could start by asking his new Health and Human Services secretary, Tommy Thompson, to review the issue. That could put Thompson in an awkward spot. As Wisconsin governor, he was staunchly anti-abortion, but he was quite supportive of stem-cell research, which was pioneered in his state.

With Bush in the White House, the GOP-controlled Congress will become a center of anti-abortion activity. Legislation banning so-called partial-birth abortion, twice passed by Congress and twice vetoed by Clinton, will almost certainly make its way to Bush's desk. Rep. Charles Canady, the Florida Republican who was chief House sponsor of the ban, has retired. But Republican members say a new version will be introduced soon. Another measure that passed the House and might return is the Child Custody Protection Act, which prohibits anyone other than a parent from taking a minor across state lines for an abortion.

Pro-choice activists fear that Bush and Ashcroft will also try to undermine Roe by weakening existing laws. The Justice Department has more than 50 open investigations into possible violations of FACE (Freedom of Access to Abortion Clinics), which bars violence or threats against women seeking abortions. They now wonder if the new Justice will pursue the cases vigorously.

One recent breakthrough in reproductive freedom may be relatively safe: RU-486, the abortion pill sold as Mifeprex. Thompson announced a review of its approval last fall by the Food and Drug Administration, but his options are limited. He can pull the drug from the market if it is deemed "an imminent public hazard," but that is unlikely; it hasn't been available in this country long enough to accumulate a record of side effects. Or the FDA could informally try to persuade the manufacturer, Danco Laboratories, to restrict availability. But since Danco makes only Mifeprex, that might be difficult. "There's no place for compromise," says University of Florida law professor Lars Noah, who has studied the pill. That tends to sum up the whole abortion debate.

Taking Aim At Abortion | News