In nearly three decades in politics, John Ashcroft has struggled to balance his public life against his private faith--the need, as he once wrote, “to invite God’s presence into whatever I’m doing, including politics.”
If Ashcroft is confirmed as attorney general, nowhere will that balancing act be more critical than in the debate over abortion, and that is sparking widespread worry and warnings from women’s groups in the nation.
The son of a Pentecostal minister and a champion of the religious right, Ashcroft believes that abortion is wrong in nearly all cases. Indeed, his dozens of votes and proclamations seeking to severely restrict abortion--first as attorney general and governor of Missouri, then as a U.S. senator--have been a hallmark of his career, his record shows.
Ashcroft, 58, makes no excuses for his passionate views on abortion, decrying the politics of moderation.
“I don’t apologize for being unyielding when I speak on behalf of a balanced budget or in opposition to big government or in favor of protecting the lives of unborn children,” he wrote in his 1999 autobiography.
Despite his religious beliefs, Ashcroft and his supporters say that his mission as attorney general will be to enforce the law--whether that means prosecuting someone who attacks an abortion clinic or assessing an appeal of a reproductive-rights case.
Ashcroft has already convinced some skeptics.
After meeting with Ashcroft earlier this month, Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine) said that, although she disagrees with him on abortion rights, “I am confident that he will be a faithful steward of our nation’s laws as attorney general. He will not be creating laws. He will be charged with enforcing the laws of the land.”
The key question surrounding Ashcroft’s nomination, observers said, is how his strong beliefs and political ties on abortion might shape his performance as attorney general.
Critics warned that he could leave his imprint in three crucial ways:
By urging the White House to appoint U.S. Supreme Court justices and federal judges who might oppose Roe vs. Wade and other case law, by advising Congress on the legality of anti-abortion legislation and by backing away from enforcement of a 1994 law making it a federal crime to obstruct access to abortion clinics.
As a broad-based coalition of liberal causes launched an initiative Tuesday to “stop Ashcroft,” protecting abortion rights was a priority.
“The fundamental right of every American woman is at risk,” warned Kate Michelman, president of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League. “Sen. Ashcroft has dedicated his entire public career to undoing that right.”
His record is long and unrelenting.
Using legislative, judicial and political means, Ashcroft has pushed repeatedly to enforce far tougher restrictions on what types of procedures abortion clinics can provide, at what point in a woman’s pregnancy, under what circumstances and with what funding. Although the results of his efforts have been mixed, Ashcroft has vowed not to give up the fight.
“If I had the opportunity to pass but a single law,” he told a conservative newsletter in 1998, “I would fully recognize the constitutional right to life of every unborn child and ban every abortion except for those medically necessary to save the life of the mother.”
As Missouri attorney general, Ashcroft defended all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court a 1979 Missouri law that restricted where, how and when abortions could be performed. In a split decision, the high court upheld some of the restrictions and invalidated others.
As governor, Ashcroft signed a law declaring that life begins at conception and imposing numerous restrictions on facilities and personnel used for abortions. The Supreme Court, in its 1989 Webster vs. Reproductive Health Services decision, said that Missouri and other states could impose such regulations but stopped short of overturning the 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision that ensured the abortion right. Ashcroft then named a panel of anti-abortion activists to try to revamp state law.
And as a U.S. senator, he voted to end so-called partial-birth abortions in a measure ultimately vetoed by President Clinton, and he opposed a measure declaring access to abortion as an important constitutional right.
He also tried to block David Satcher’s appointment as U.S. surgeon general because of Satcher’s views on abortion. Some politicians in Missouri suspect that abortion rights drove Ashcroft’s controversial derailment of state Supreme Court Justice Ronnie White’s nomination to be the first black judge on the federal bench in Missouri. As a state legislator, White had helped kill an anti-abortion bill in 1992 while Ashcroft was governor.
The abortion issue often appears to influence Ashcroft’s thinking.
Asked in 1998 about a proposal for an international criminal court, he branded it an “outrage"--in part because he said such a court could make banning abortions a crime. “For heaven’s sake, that could make withholding of an abortion a crime against humanity, when many Americans believe that providing an abortion is a crime against humanity,” he said.
His critics depict Ashcroft as an extremist.
The liberal People for the American Way group has attacked Ashcroft for supporting a ban on abortions even in cases of rape or incest. The group said that his call to pass a constitutional “human rights amendment"--defining human life as beginning at the point of “fertilization"--could outlaw common forms of contraception, such as the pill and IUDs.
He also has opposed requiring federal health insurance plans to cover prescription contraceptives.
Ashcroft’s Senate votes generally earned him 100% ratings from groups such as the National Right to Life Committee and the Christian Coalition. Liberal and civil rights groups, in contrast, have consistently put him at the very bottom of their approval ratings.
But it is Ashcroft’s alleged inaction in the face of recent waves of violence against abortion clinics and providers that most irks some abortion rights activists.
M’Evie Mead, project director of a Missouri abortion rights group called Show Me Choice, went to Ashcroft’s office in 1999 to add her concerns to those of other abortion rights activists in the state who for several years had been protesting the appointment of an anti-abortion leader to the state Republican committee in 1996.
The committee member, Tim Dreste, was one of a dozen anti-abortion activists ordered by an Oregon court in 1998 to pay $107 million in damages for making “illegal threats” against abortion providers and distributing “wanted” posters containing their names and personal data.
Mead spoke with a member of Ashcroft’s staff, who told her that the senator would get back to her. But Ashcroft never responded, Mead said. Under pressure from state Republicans, Dreste was forced off the committee months later. But there was no indication that Ashcroft played any role.
“Ashcroft’s silence in that case was very telling,” she said. “Whether he agrees or not with the extremists in thinking that killing abortion providers is a good thing, he appears to extend a hand to people who do think that way.”
Ashcroft is not granting interviews before his confirmation hearing, which could start as early as next Tuesday. And Bush transition officials declined repeated requests to discuss his record on abortion.
David O’Steen, executive director of the National Right to Life Committee, said he believes the attacks on Ashcroft from abortion rights groups are political hatchet jobs. “I think their position is that no pro-life person should hold office in the United States,” he said.
Ashcroft’s critics countered that his ties to groups such as O’Steen’s would give the anti-abortion community and the religious right undue clout in his Justice Department.
In his unsuccessful bid for reelection last year, Ashcroft collected more money from the clergy and religious groups--$23,577--than any other congressional candidate, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. He also received about $25,000 in direct contributions and expenditures from anti-abortion groups and their affiliates.
An aide to a leading Senate Democrat said that for the last eight years the Justice Department has “gone the extra mile” in responding to efforts to intimidate abortion providers and asked whether “a similar degree of concern would be shown by Ashcroft.”
But Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University, said it would be possible “for Ashcroft to serve as attorney general and to protect the right to choose despite his own personal views in opposition.”
Others are not so sure.
“Abortion as a political-slash-legal issue will be back” at the Justice Department under Ashcroft, said Stuart M. Gerson, a top Justice Department official in the administration of George W. Bush’s father. Battlefields will likely be drawn around efforts to restrict access to RU-486 and to review federal funding for late-term abortions, he said.
Patricia Ireland, president of the National Organization for Women, said that women’s rights activists are already gearing up for the fight, should he be confirmed.
“This is one of John Ashcroft’s core, visceral issues,” she said, “and I’d be hard-pressed to think that he’s not going to try to find a way to gut abortion rights.”