WASHINGTON — Under Atty. Gen. Janet Reno, the Justice Department has moved aggressively on several fronts to protect abortion rights.
It has filed briefs urging the Supreme Court to preserve women's access to abortion services. It has vigorously enforced the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act of 1994. It formed an interagency task force dedicated to preventing violence at clinics. It has even taken the unprecedented step of assigning federal marshals to provide around-the-clock protection to abortion doctors and clinic workers when their lives appear to be at risk.
Will John Ashcroft do the same? It's a question that vexes abortion rights advocates and critics of the former Missouri senator chosen by President-elect George W. Bush to succeed Reno as attorney general. And it will be a subject of intense scrutiny in Ashcroft's confirmation hearings, scheduled to begin today before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Within the federal government, the Justice Department wields more power than any other agency over abortion issues. Ashcroft, like Reno, will be faced with numerous decisions involving both law and policy, according to former Justice officials and advocates on both sides of the abortion debate.
Ashcroft, an ardent opponent of legal abortions throughout his 38-year political career, has said nothing so far to indicate whether he would continue the discretionary enforcement efforts initiated by Reno. Nor has he indicated what positions he would take on constitutional questions related to abortion rights.
Documents provided by the Bush-Cheney transition team suggest that, despite his ideological inclinations, Ashcroft would enforce the clinic access law and take a strong stand against abortion clinic violence.
"John Ashcroft has always condemned criminal violence at abortion clinics--or anywhere--and believes individuals who commit these acts of violence and intimidation should be punished to the fullest extent of the law," said Mindy Tucker, a Bush-Cheney spokeswoman. "As attorney general, he will do just that."
His defenders say he is an absolutely upright man who knows his new job will require him to uphold the law, whatever it may be. "I think John Ashcroft is a very ethical lawyer," said A.B. Culvahouse, White House counsel under former Presidents Reagan and Bush.
The question, according to abortion rights advocates, is how Ashcroft exercises his discretion.
"Can someone of strong ideological views, someone who has a strong moral opposition to abortion, adequately enforce all of the laws?" said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), a Judiciary Committee member who has expressed reservations about Ashcroft's nomination. "The attorney general has enormous power to make discretionary decisions and judgments on where to spend department resources and how to interpret the laws."
'I Was Fearful for My Life'
For Dr. Eric Schaff, a professor of pediatric and adolescent medicine at the University of Rochester Medical School in New York who performs abortions, the Justice Department's decision to give him federal marshal protection in 1998 after two colleagues in neighboring towns were shot made a critical difference for him and his family. "I was fearful for my life," said Schaff, who ran some of the clinical tests on the recently approved abortion drug RU-486. After those shootings, in which abortion doctor Barnett Slepian was killed as he stood before an uncurtained window in his home, Schaff drew his curtains for good.
"I haven't had an unblinded window since then, but the federal marshals, at least they secure your environment," Schaff said.
Neither Bush nor Ashcroft has made any secret of their interest in reversing the direction taken by the Clinton administration on abortion rights.
Knowledgeable officials and advocates say that Ashcroft, if confirmed, will have the greatest effect in deciding how the Justice Department deals with violence at clinics, what position it takes on abortion cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, and how it handles the selection of judges.
It is up to the attorney general and the assistant attorney general for civil rights to decide, for instance, how many cases to bring under the 1994 federal act and what penalties to seek for those who threaten or commit clinic violence.
The aggressive efforts undertaken during Reno's tenure were initiated in response to rising waves of anti-abortion violence that became increasingly dangerous and ultimately deadly. Since 1985, there have been seven killings of abortion providers and clinic workers in the United States, 53 clinic bombings and 173 arsons, according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. In addition, there have been hundreds of incidents of vandalism and scores of attempted arsons and bombings, according to the bureau and the National Abortion Federation, which represents abortion providers.