Commentator Caryl Rivers

(WOMENSNEWS)–George W. Bush has sent a strong signal to the women he assiduously courted in his campaign that on the issue of choice, they have been seduced and abandoned. On the 28th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, he has said he will reinstate the infamous “gag” rule, which affects millions of women around the globe, and which the Clinton administration had reversed. The rule denies U.S. aid to hard-pressed family planning organizations struggling to improve women’s health and combat poverty, not by providing abortions but by basic education and health care. Under the gag rule they will not be allowed to as much as offer information on abortion–even if they use their own sources of funds to do it.

It’s an ominous sign for the suburban women who voted for George W. Bush believing that he would soft-pedal his party’s traditional stance on abortion. A substantial defection among suburban women would have cost Bush the election. Although there was a gender gap in overall numbers of women voters, among white women the vote was split evenly, with 48 percent voting for Gore and 48 percent voting for Bush.

George W. apparently learned a lesson from his father’s defeat. The American Association of Political Scientists did a study of the l992 campaign titled, “It’s Abortion, Stupid,” in which the group argues that Bush Senior lost the election because 28 percent of Republican women defected to either Clinton or Perot because of their pro-choice stances.

George W. avoided such defections by crafting his entire campaign to appeal to women. “Compassionate conservatism” was a mantra that was designed to appeal to women who were turned off by the harsh face of the Newt Gingrich image of the party. Bush gave very clear signals to women voters that he would not be the candidate of the religious right. He said that he would employ no pro-life litmus test when it came to Supreme Court nominees and noted that while he was personally pro-life, good people could disagree on the issue of choice.

But Bush nominated a rabidly anti-choice candidate, John Ashcroft, for Attorney General and now he is poised to reverse all Clinton policies which support women’s access to abortion. White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card says all these policies will be quickly reviewed by the administration, and he hinted that the approval by the Federal Drug Administration of RU-486, the abortion pill, may be in jeopardy. Card said, “We’re going to take a look at all of the regulations. We’re going to take a look at all the executive orders.”

There is a supreme irony in these actions. Will women be the losers, once again, as another member of the Bush family leaves them in the lurch? 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 Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, New York Sen. Jacob Javits and Massachusetts Sen. 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 it 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 that 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 to be 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, later dubbed the gag rule, 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 tactics of fanatics on the right, who blew up clinics, murdered doctors and harassed women trying 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 recent events demonstrate, 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 is throwing to them is choice.

Ashcroft Said to Consider IUD Contraceptives Immoral

His nomination of 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 domestic “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: Gen. Colin L. Powell at State and Condoleezza Rice in National Security, but neither of them will have much say in domestic policy and apparently has not affected his foreign policy in the area of reproductive health. The anti-choice man, Ashcroft, will be at the center of things.

Clearly, the flowering of the Bush dynasty comes as a result of the abandonment of women’s rights. Bush is departing from the sincerely held beliefs of his grandfather and replicating his father’s cynical switch and demonstrating that his moderation was a political device. The women who voted for George W. (as well as those who didn’t) have a right to feel betrayed.

Caryl Rivers is a professor of journalism at Boston University.