Caryl Rivers

(WOMENSENEWS)–Will women be the losers as George W. Bush puts together his administration? Will he follow in his father’s footsteps, jettisoning a centrist position on the issue of reproductive choice to appease the right wing of his party?

Bush’s “compassionate conservatism,” a central theme of his campaign, was clearly tailored to appeal to women voters. He took great pains to soften his party’s hard-line opposition to abortion rights, claiming that he would not use a pro-life litmus test in making appointments to the Supreme Court. He said often that while he was personally pro-life, reasonable people could disagree on the issue of choice.

This tactic unquestionably worked in the recent election, at least as far as white women were concerned. White women voted in the same numbers for Bush as they did for Al Gore–48 percent for each. It seems clear that George W. Bush’s efforts to signal that he was not a hard-liner on the choice issue reassured many female voters. One young woman I know said that although her primary issue in the presidential elections was choice, she was leaning toward Bush. She took his campaign comments to mean that he would take no actions to endanger Roe v. Wade.

But Bush family history may foretell a different story. Reproductive issues have played a central role in the saga of what can now officially be called the Bush dynasty.

George W.’s grandfather, Prescott Bush, was a member of what used to be called the Eastern Republican Establishment. These were men who were conservative on fiscal policy, but they tended to be moderate to liberal on social issues. The group included such successful politicians as New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, New York Senator Jacob Javits and Massachusetts Senator Leverett Saltonstall.

Bush Family Staunchly Supported Planned Parenthood

Prescott Bush–and the Bush family–were staunch supporters of Planned Parenthood, an organization that advocates family planning in the United States and worldwide in order to protect the health of women and to combat poverty. The Bushes lived in Connecticut, the state where a successful landmark suit was brought challenging state laws against contraception. The Supreme Court’s 1965 decision in Griswold v. Connecticut affirmed the right of couples to use contraceptives. The decision was based on the right to privacy and is the precedent for the court’s 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade.

But in l950, when Prescott Bush ran for the U.S. Senate from Connecticut, many states still outlawed birth control devices and the Republican right wing backed such laws. Late in the campaign, press reports that Bush contributed to Planned Parenthood caused an uproar among conservatives and Bush lost the election by one-tenth of one percent. Political observers said that the issue of family planning had most certainly cost him the election. Prescott Bush would later win a senate seat and serve two terms.

His son, George Herbert Walker Bush, started his public career as a strong supporter of family planning and acted on those beliefs as a congressman. He was the chief Republican author of the Family Planning Act of 1970, considered a keystone of congressional support for population control. Of his role in the legislation, Bush wrote, “We took the lead in Congress in providing money and urging–in fact, even requiring–that in the United States, family planning services be available for every woman.”

Later, as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Bush actively promoted family planning around the world. He wrote in l973, “Success in the population field, under United Nations leadership, may, in turn, determine whether we resolve successfully the other great questions of peace, prosperity and individual rights that face the world.”

But then, opportunity knocked, and George Bush had to choose between his political future and his convictions on family planning. Unsuccessful in his presidential bid against California Gov. Ronald Reagan, he soon discovered that he was on the short list of candidates for Reagan’s running mate in l980.

Bush Sacrificed Pro-Choice Principles to Be Reagan’s No. 2

Published reports of Bush’s meeting with Reagan make it clear that Bush was given an ultimatum: change his position on reproductive rights to match the hard-edged pro-life stance of Reagan, the darling of the religious right, or lose his chance. Bush picked power and the rest is history.

Bush signed on to Reagan’s “Mexico City” policy (named after the city where it was presented at an international conference) that required organizations around the world to withhold services or even information about abortion from their clients in order to receive U.S. aid. Bush also agreed to Reagan’s boycott of the United Nations Population Fund, the major family planning organization in some 140 developing nations.

Ironically, George W. Bush also faced a reproductive rights dilemma as he approached his own run for the presidency. Polls showed that suburban Republican women supported Roe v. Wade in substantial numbers and that most Americans recoiled from the storm-trooper tactics of fanatics on the right, who blew up clinics, murdered doctors and harassed women who tried to enter family planning clinics.

George W. took the opposite course from his father. Where the senior Bush had moved to the right, W. tacked to the center. But there are strong indications that, like his father, he will soon depart from the family’s historic roots as supporters of family planning and reproductive rights. Though he won as a centrist, Bush has to keep the hard right wing of his party happy. The bone he throws to them may well be choice.

Ashcroft Said to Consider IUD Contraceptives Immoral

His nomination of John Ashcroft as Attorney General means that an extreme conservative will be in charge of enforcing the nation’s laws on reproductive rights. Ashcroft, the former senator from Missouri, is so extreme on the issue that he even regards some methods of contraception, such as the intra-uterine device, the IUD, as immoral. He is far more extreme on the issue of choice than many Republicans and regards moderation–the platform on which W. campaigned–as a vice. He told a television reporter that there are “two things you find in the middle of the road: a moderate and a dead skunk, and I don’t want to be either one of them.”

But Ashcroft is not the first man with extreme views that W. has appointed. NARAL, the pro-choice lobby, reports that Bush appointed as Texas Commissioner of Health a man who was quoted as saying that contraception gives too much power to women. Bush signed 13 anti-choice provisions into law as governor, he supports a Constitutional amendment to ban abortion and he wants to prohibit medical providers at federally funded family planning clinics from discussing abortion as a legal medical option (the “gag” rule).

And while George W. has appointed two pro-choice women to cabinet posts, Gail Norton of Colorado at Interior and New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman at Environment, neither of them has any say over issues involving reproductive rights. He appointed two pro-choice African Americans: Colin Powell at State and Condoleezza Rice in National Security, but neither of them will have much say in domestic policy. The anti-choice man, Ashcroft, will be at the center of things.

Will the flowering of the Bush dynasty come as a result of the abandonment of women’s rights? Will the son depart from the sincerely held beliefs of his grandfather or will he replicate his father’s cynical switch and demonstrate that his moderation was a political device? The women who voted for George W. (as well as those who didn’t) will soon find out.

Caryl Rivers is a professor of journalism at Boston University.