WASHINGTON — He campaigned on a pro-life platform, and after eight years of a stridently pro-abortion administration, and a near-miss on another just like it, many pro-lifers were willing to give him a chance.
But at the end of his first year as president, President Bush is getting mixed reviews from pro-life advocates gathering in Washington, D.C., for the Jan. 22 March for Life.
They acknowledge that his presidency has been a sharp improvement from Bill Clinton on life issues, but some are disappointed with his compromise on stem-cell research even as others applaud the Solomonic way he worked out that tough issue.
And while Bush won praise for reversing a number of Clinton administration policies, he drew fire for failing to question the FDA's approval of the abortion drug RU-486.
The war on terrorism has absorbed Bush and the entire country for the past four months, but plenty of pro-life issues are looming in 2002 — including a decision on whether to continue funding the United Nations Population Fund and possible appointments to the Supreme Court of the United States, which could tip the balance against Roe v. Wade.
“We're very proud of his leadership,” said Darla St. Martin of the National Right to Life Committee. “His administration has been a tremendous contrast with the Clinton Administration. If we had Clinton in office this past year, it would have been terrible.”
At press time, the White House had not commented to the Register on its pro-life record. But it may hearten pro-life advocates who question some of Bush's decisions to note that groups such as the National Abortion Rights Action League, the National Abortion of Women and the American Civil Liberties Union are outraged at the direction he has taken.
For example, while Judie Brown, president of American Life League, was distressed that John Ashcroft, during his confirmation hearing last January, said that he accepted Roe v. Wade as “the settled law of the land,” Planned Parenthood president Gloria Feldt called Ashcroft's confirmation as attorney general a “travesty for the civil and reproductive rights of every American.”
Ashcroft said he believed Roe was wrongly decided.
Bush's inauguration Jan. 20, 2001, was followed swiftly by his first executive order as president, announced two days later during the 2001 March for Life. Reversing one of Clinton's first acts in office eight years earlier, Bush restored the Mexico City Policy, which forbids U.S. funding of organizations that perform abortions or promote abortion in foreign countries as a method of family planning.
Still, Brown isn't ready to credit Bush simply for his contrast with Clinton.
“We have to look at the record of the man who claimed to be pro-life,” she said. “We knew Clinton was pro-abortion. I still don't know where Bush stands.”
Brown pointed out that Bush didn't quite restore the Mexico City policy. His version contains exceptions allowing abortion to save the life of the mother or in cases of rape or incest. And she was disappointed that Bush failed to reverse other pro-abortion executive orders Clinton had signed in his early days, including orders to allow fetal tissue research and to ease restrictions on access to abortion in U.S. military hospitals overseas.
But St. Martin argued that Bush's pro-life policies have been limited primarily because pro-abortion Democratic Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, who calls himself a Catholic, is blocking many of them.
The political situation is also cited as a key reason why Bush could not go further in his key Aug. 9 announcement on funding of embryonic stem cells, perhaps the life issue that drew the most attention in his first year.
Few observers dispute that Bush lacked the political support to declare an outright ban of federal funding of the experiments, which use tissue derived from living human embryos who were killed to derive their stem cells. That's because a number of senators who ordinarily vote pro-life “wanted to allow experimentation on frozen living embryos,” St. Martin said. “It would have been impossible to uphold in the Senate the decision that some were asking for.”
St. Martin said that politics demands compromise. “We agree with the ideal goal, if you could do it. But there are situations where, if you try to demand your ideal, you lose everything,” St. Martin said.
And, she added, Bush's approach, allowing funding for experiments with the 60 or so stem-cell lines already established but banning any future destruction of embryos for their stem cells, helped “bring back a number of senators who were pro-embryonic stem-cell research.”
However, the decision sharply divided pro-life advocates and was characterized as “morally unacceptable” by Bishop Joseph A. Fiorenza of Galveston-Houston, then the president of the U.S. bishops.
Kenneth L. Connor, president of the Family Research Council, believes that the compromise meant Bush “gave up the moral high ground, which may hurt him in holding the line against cloning.”
Connor said the Family Research Council will encourage Bush to take the lead in getting a partial-birth abortion ban through Congress. Such a ban was passed by the House in 2000, but stalled in the face of Clinton's promised veto. In his campaign, Bush said he would sign a partial-birth abortion ban.
Connor also expressed hope that Bush will stick to a campaign pledge to appoint strict constructionist judges — those who interpret the Constitution strictly rather than reinterpreting it broadly, as the Supreme Court did in Roe v. Wade by extending the right to privacy to cover abortion. “If he's faithful, the balance of the Supreme Court will be tipped, and it will no longer be considered a right for a mother to kill her child,” Connor predicted.
But for Brown and others, the fact that some of Bush's picks for top posts have mixed records on abortion does not instill confidence. That's especially true if he has to make a Supreme Court appointment this year, with a Democratic Senate to confirm him. Brown notes that the president's top strategist, Karl Rove, and other Bush advisors “have made it clear that he won't use a litmus test on abortion for any court nominees.”
Connor, who understands that court appointments will have a major influence on the country's direction on abortion, has advice for the president. Bush has proven his mettle in the war on terrorism, Connor notes, earning near-record approval ratings in the process. Now, “it's imperative he show the same guts and grits in leading in