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Unbearable Consequences

IT'S HARD TO IMAGINE A POLITICIAN WITH A more steadfastly anti-abortion record than John Ashcroft, that Lurch-like religious warrior with politics more appropriate to 17th-century Salem, Massachusetts -- or late-1990s Kandahar -- than to the world's most vocal champion of secular democracy.

In 1998, as a U.S. senator, Ashcroft declared: "If I had the opportunity to pass but a single law, 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." He certainly has tried. While in the Senate, he co-sponsored both a constitutional amendment and legislation that would have outlawed abortion in all cases except when a woman's life was threatened. If it were left up to Ashcroft, abortion would be illegal even if a woman would be permanently and seriously injured by giving birth, or had conceived due to rape or incest. At every stage of his career, he has done all in his power to restrict and challenge the rights laid out in Roe vs. Wade.

Since his nomination, pro-choice activists have worried that Ashcroft would be unwilling to enforce laws protecting women's reproductive-health centers from violence. Vicki Saporta, head of the National Abortion Federation, credits tough federal enforcement under Janet Reno for the drop in anti-abortion violence since the mid-1990s. Ashcroft initially planned to dismantle a federal interagency task force Reno had created to investigate crimes against abortion providers in the wake of the 1998 murder of Dr. Barnett Slepian.

"Because of the pressure we were able to exert," Saporta says, Ashcroft "kept the task force going." But he has continued to keep, in the words of Frederick Clarkson, a journalist and expert on the anti-abortion movement, "an arm's length and a cold shoulder" between himself and pro-choice groups.

THE FIRST TEST CAME LAST SUMMER, WHEN ANTI-abortion activists promised mass protests in Wichita, Kansas, aiming to shut down a clinic operated by Dr. George Tiller, one of the few doctors in the country who perform late-term abortions. The protest slogan "Let's Finish It" had pro-choice activists anxious, as it seemed to refer not only to Operation Rescue's massive 1991 clinic blockade in Wichita, but to the attempted murder of Dr. Tiller soon after. Saporta and others began asking for a meeting with Ashcroft to request that federal marshals be dispatched to protect Tiller. Ashcroft never met with them and initially refused. "After we called a press conference," Saporta says, "they provided marshal protection." The protests flopped regardless.

Around the same time, Clayton Waagner began posting messages on the Internet detailing his plans for a killing spree. "It doesn't matter to me if you're a nurse, receptionist, bookkeeper, or janitor," Waagner wrote. "If you work for the murderous abortionist I'm going to kill you." Pro-choice leaders wanted Ashcroft to make a public statement against anti-abortion violence, to post a reward for Waagner's capture and to place him on the FBI's most-wanted list. "We asked for it in writing, we asked for it over the telephone, we asked for it in personal meetings [with Ashcroft aides] over a matter of months," and were repeatedly told, Saporta says, "The timing's not right."

Waagner was added to the most-wanted list in September, but it wasn't until two months later, after Waagner took credit for mailing hundreds of phony anthrax-threat letters to abortion clinics, that Ashcroft made a statement publicly condemning Waagner's actions and labeling him a "domestic terrorist." Within a week of the attorney general's remarks, Waagner was spotted by a Kinko's employee and arrested in Ohio.

Saporta and other pro-choice leaders say they were happy with Ashcroft's statement, and with the FBI's investigation of the anthrax threats. "When we pushed, it happened, and we're very pleased with that," says Katherine Spillar of the Feminist Majority. But, now in his second year in office, Ashcroft has yet to meet face to face with any pro-choice groups.


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