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THE PRESIDENTIAL TRANSITION

As Attorney General, Ashcroft's Trial Would Be Abortion Issue

Rights: Some fear the nominee's strong beliefs will bring curbs. But he says his job would be to uphold law.

January 10, 2001|ERIC LICHTBLAU | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — 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.

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