Parsing Bush's mixed messages on abortion

Recent steps reflect antiabortion stand, but some say Bush's actions will be limited.

George W. Bush may have come to Washington talking of compromise, but he has already walked into one of the nation's most divisive political thickets: abortion.

In the wake of John Ashcroft's nomination for attorney general and President Bush's executive order this week denying US funds to international groups that support abortion (see story, page 7), activists on both sides are beginning to raise their voices.

The result: The abortion debate, always contentious, now seems set to rattle through the marbled halls of Washington for the next four years.

"There's no ambiguity about what he's willing to do," says Kate Michelman, president of the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL). "The president campaigned with a moderate demeanor, but I never believed it. The facade is off now."

But the Bush administration is also presenting another voice on abortion. Mr. Ashcroft recently told a Senate panel he was not interested in trying to overturn the nation's abortion law. And first lady Laura Bush recently told NBC's "Today" show she did not think Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that made abortion legal, should be overturned.

Whether Mr. Bush is telegraphing a deep commitment to the antiabortion movement, as some believe, or simply using a few early statements and actions to pay back conservative Republicans for their support is unclear. And that may be the point.

"Has he been sending mixed messages on abortion?" asks David Garrow, a legal historian at Emory University in Atlanta, who studies abortion law. "Yes, and probably purposely so."

Activists on both sides of the dispute may be sharpening their words, but most of the primary questions surrounding abortion are, for the time being, settled.

Unless one of the nine justices on the Supreme Court is replaced, Roe v. Wade will remain the law of the land. It has been affirmed by the court more than once. Because of an amendment tied to the annual budget of the Department of Health and Human Services, the US government doesn't pay for abortions, except in cases of rape, incest, or to protect the life of the mother.

Even so-called partial-birth abortion - a big issue for Bush, who has promised to sign legislation outlawing it - is limited as an issue. Last year, the US Supreme Court invalidated a Nebraska law that made the practice illegal, in part because it offered no exception for the health of the mother. This exception, which involves psychological as well as physical well-being, is so broad, antiabortion groups are unlikely to push hard for a law, Mr. Garrow says.

All of which leaves a relatively narrow slice of turf for the two sides to fight over - such as gag orders and fetal-tissue research, both of which Bush can overturn with an executive order.

Still, the issue is one of the most sensitive in US politics, and the rhetoric will be intense. Ms. Michelman says that since Bush's executive order Monday, her office has been flooded with calls.

Outside of Supreme Court appointments, NARAL is concerned with Bush's stance on RU-486, the so-called abortion pill. Tommy Thompson, Bush's appointee for secretary of Health and Human Services, has said he wants to review the drug's FDA approval process

David O'Steen, executive director of the National Right to Life Committee, says anti-abortion groups are excited about Bush's actions so far and are currently working on their legislative strategy.

On top of the group's "to do" list are two pieces of legislation that have strong support on the Hill. The Child Custody Bill would prevent people from taking a minor from a state with a parental notification law to another state where such a law doesn't exist to have an abortion. The Unborn Victim law, versions of which are already in place in several states, would protect unborn children from violence.

For now, at least, both sides in the abortion fight agree on one thing: Mixed messages may be coming out of the Bush team, but the president himself seems committed to the anti-abortion lobby.

"If you want to know where this administration is going, listen to George Bush," Mr. O'Steen says. He points to recent comments in which Bush has come very close to saying his Justice Department will seek a change in the nation's abortion law.

But Garrow is less certain. He notes that Monday's executive order was no real surprise, as Bush promised such a move in his campaign, and law required him to act by Feb. 15. And considering all the other issues Bush has on his plate, from education to tax cuts, Garrow says, he probably can't afford to spend too much political capital on a contentious issue like abortion.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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