TOPICS > Health

Abortion Politics

January 2, 2003 at 12:00 AM EST
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SUSAN DENTZER: As a candidate for president, George W. Bush was always clear about his position on abortion.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Every child — born and unborn — should be protected under law and every child should be welcomed in life. I believe it’s important for our party to maintain our pro-life position.

SUSAN DENTZER: Now that he’s president, his administration’s actions have become a focal point in the pro-life versus pro-choice debate. Three recent moves in particular have inflamed pro-choice advocates, who say the actions have the potential to roll back abortion rights.

SPOKESMAN: Things are totally developed. There’s the baby’s legs.

SUSAN DENTZER: And at the core of the argument is the central question of when human life begins. Example number one: The Bush administration recently abolished a committee that advises the government on protecting people who participate in medical research. The administration now proposes to create a new committee, with the new charter shown here. And for the first time ever in a federal document, embryos are classified as human subjects, to be protected in medical and scientific research.

MARY FAITH MARSHALL: That alone was an indication to me that there might be a different agenda on the table than purely the protection of human research subjects or participants.

SUSAN DENTZER: Bioethicist Mary Faith Marshall of the University of Kansas chaired the original committee. She says a key administration goal is apparently to prevent research on embryos, including embryonic stem cells.

MARY FAITH MARSHALL: It’s a mechanism for getting at the issue of doing research with stem cells and research with embryos, and that may be a vehicle or a mechanism for providing advice that would ban that sort of research.

SUSAN DENTZER: And many scientists believe that research may lead to breakthrough cures for a range of diseases, from Parkinson’s to Alzheimer’s. To pro-life advocates like Kenneth Connor, who heads the conservative Family Research Council, there’s another agenda behind the administration’s move, and one that he fully supports. Connor says that once embryos are accorded protected status in research because they are human, abortion could be banned on the ground that it kills these human beings.

KENNETH CONNOR: I think, frankly, that this whole area of biotechnology, whether it be embryonic stem- cell research or human cloning, provides a fascinating opportunity to discuss the status of the human embryo without coming into a collision course with a woman’s right to privacy.

Since… when you have an embryo in a Petri dish or in vitro or in some other artificial medium, arguments can’t be advanced about a woman’s right to privacy and how a woman’s right to choose ought to trump the unborn child or the human embryo’s right to life.

SPOKESPERSON: See your ear. Where’s your ear?

SUSAN DENTZER: Example number two: This fall, the administration took a separate action that effectively broadens the definition of who is a child. It did so through a new regulation affecting the state children’s health insurance program, or S-CHIP. That’s a program jointly funded by the federal government and states, to provide health coverage for low-income children.

SPOKESPERSON: It won’t stop until the end.

SPOKESPERSON: Oh, bring it on.

SUSAN DENTZER: Under the new regulation issued by the administration, however, the definition of children was expanded to include the unborn. Claude Allen, deputy secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, told us the change was intended to provide good prenatal health care to low income pregnant women.

CLAUDE ALLEN: It covers that gap that we all recognize, that if you aren’t covering a mom during her prenatal period, and that immediate post-partum period, that you really aren’t effectively covering the child.

SUSAN DENTZER: But reproductive rights activists say the move was a backdoor attempt to create a legal identity for fetuses, and another step on the road to banning abortion. Judith Lichtman heads the National Partnership for Women and Families.

JUDITH LICHTMAN: It’s a sham, and therefore a political sop to anti-choice elements and their supporters that does nothing but create for the first time in a federal regulation a legal status for a fetus, and we argue is in direct contravention, therefore, of the constitutional protections established in Roe V. Wade way back in 1973, which everybody argues is, and admits, is settled law.

SPOKESPERSON: How’s the baby?

SUSAN DENTZER: The American Academy of Pediatrics and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, or ACOG, have also criticized the move. Dr. Laura Riley heads an ACOG committee that studied the issue.

DR. LAURA RILEY: You can’t separate care for the mother and care for the fetus. They are integrally related, and it is impossible to imagine that something that affects the health of the mother is not going to affect the health of the fetus, so that it puts physicians in the position of trying to decide which aspect of care is covered and which is not. It makes no sense.

SUSAN DENTZER: HHS Deputy Secretary Allen rejects the claim that a pro-life agenda was behind the regulation.

CLAUDE ALLEN: This is a regulation that is not pro-life, nor is it pro- abortion. This regulation is focused on the access to quality health care for children. It’s a win for the state because they’re able to provide health- care coverage for those children and their mothers who currently don’t have them. It’s a win for families, because those women who have made a decision that they want to have their children can now get prenatal care.

SUSAN DENTZER: Example number three involves the naming of Dr. W. David Hager, along with other pro-life physicians, to a Food and Drug Administration panel on reproductive health.

Hager is an obstetrician- gynecologist specializing in infectious diseases, and a part- time faculty member at the University of Kentucky. He also worked with pro-life groups on this petition, filed earlier this year. It calls on the FDA to rescind approval of the abortion-inducing drug Mifeprex, formerly known as RU-486. The drug was approved by the FDA in 2000, and has been used safely by more than 100,000 U.S. women to induce abortions in the early stages of pregnancy.

KENNETH CONNOR: I think the doctor, out of an abundance of caution for women’s health, is absolutely right to call into question the appropriateness of this drug.

SUSAN DENTZER: But pro-choice groups vehemently disagree. And they’re also alarmed that Hager, a devout Christian, has written several books that advance his beliefs on the fundamental role of spirituality in health.

In one book he co-wrote with his wife, Linda, he advises women suffering from premenstrual syndrome to “ask the Holy Spirit to show you how to access his supernatural grace and strength on your worst PMS days.” In another, he assures women trying to conceive that “Jesus values you enough to be concerned about your fertility.”

SPOKESPERSON: Yeah, based on the current behavior…

SUSAN DENTZER: Ann Stone is a Republican who voted for President Bush. But she also heads Republicans for Choice, a group fighting to protect abortion rights. She says Hager is the wrong man for the FDA job.

ANN STONE: He believes in Jesus as a source of healing and the power of prayer and all that, and as a Christian, I can certainly understand that. But I don’t think we’d see Jesus on earth advocating that the FDA be out there praying over people to heal them.

SUSAN DENTZER: Amid a loud outcry, groups like the National Organization for Women wrote President Bush to protest the Hager appointment. The administration partly backed down. On December 24, Christmas Eve, the Department of Health and Human Services put out this press release with a full roster of the new committee. Hager was not appointed as chair, but he was appointed as a panel member.

CLAUDE ALLEN: We want a balanced panel, and Dr. Hager has the skills and abilities, and we believe the expertise, to be a part of that panel. And so that’s why he has been appointed there, and we have no reason to think that we need to back away from that appointment at all.

KENNETH CONNOR: The attacks on Dr. Hager have been made on the basis of his faith, the implication being that if you’re a conscientious Christian, you can’t have anything to do with any agency that may affect abortion policy in this country. The reality is, the president prevailed. He ought to be permitted to have the fruits of his election and to put forward people who are not only concerned about the health of women, but the lives of children.

SUSAN DENTZER: Meanwhile, several other newly announced appointees to the same FDA panel also have drawn the wrath of pro- choice advocates.

One has been a member of the board of a pro-life physician’s group, while another advocates only natural family planning, or the so-called rhythm method, and opposes all other forms of contraception on pro-life grounds.

Both pro-choice and pro-life advocates expect more battles to come. Those could come over additional pro-life appointments by the Bush administration to key committees, and the policy changes that could follow.