The Case Against the Confirmation of John Ashcroft As Attorney General of the United States: Part II

As Governor

As Governor, Ashcroft relentlessly continued to pursue his ultimate goal of banning abortion. As he stated in an interview, "I’m what you would call a person who is against abortion. I generally do whatever I can to curtail abortion." St. Louis Post-Dispatch (April 25, 1986). True to his word, Governor Ashcroft proposed new and extreme measures to curb abortions and directly challenge the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade. In doing so, he let nothing stand in his way, stacking a task force with abortion opponents and forgoing any pretense of impartiality or deference toward the views of legislators and constituents with whom he disagreed.

As an example of such extreme legislation, in January 1990, Governor Ashcroft proposed new restrictions on abortion that, among other things, would have prohibited women from having a second abortion except to protect their health. Doctors and hospitals could have lost their licenses for violating the law, and doctors would have been required to ask women to disclose the reasons for their abortions and information on any prior abortion. St. Louis Post-Dispatch (1/20/90).

One editorial described Ashcroft’s "one to a customer plan" as "downright goofy" and criticized it for sending a "troubling message about women and morality." St. Louis Post-Dispatch (1/23/90). The editorial continued: "Second abortions, in this worldview, are the result of irresponsibility. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Second abortions are, for example, more likely to be performed because of contraceptive failure than first abortions." Id. Despite these facts, Ashcroft claimed in trademark, inflammatory language, "History someday is going to say, ‘This butchering of women and children is the wrong way to manage family size." Id. Another article described reaction to Ashcroft’s plan as "novel" and "shocking," and noted concerns that enforcement of the law could require the state to track women who have abortions and require doctors to invade traditional areas of privacy with regard to medical information. St. Louis Sun (1/23/90). Evidence of the extreme nature of the bill was that it effectively died in less than a week in the solidly anti-choice Missouri General Assembly. Kansas City Times (Jan. 25, 1990).

In 1986, Ashcroft had put Missouri in the forefront of the anti-choice movement by signing into law a bill comprising a series of abortion restrictions and provisions aimed again at finding different ways of inviting reconsideration and reversal of Roe v. Wade by the courts. The provisions included stating in a preamble that human life begins at conception; requiring that all state laws be interpreted to provide "unborn children" with the same rights enjoyed by other persons subject to the U.S. Constitution; requiring physicians to ascertain viability at or after 20 weeks of pregnancy by performing certain medical tests; and prohibiting the use of public employees or facilities to perform abortions or to counsel a woman to have an abortion except as necessary to save the woman’s life. While the federal district and appeals courts struck down each of these provisions as unconstitutional, in Webster v. Reproductive Health Services, 492 U.S. 490 (1989), a bitterly divided Supreme Court generally upheld the specific restrictions in Missouri’s law while not ruling on the preamble or overturning Roe v. Wade.

Almost immediately after the decision, Governor Ashcroft announced the appointment of a "Task Force for Mothers and Unborn Children" intended "to contribute to Missouri’s lead in regulating abortions." St. Louis Post-Dispatch (7/22/89). Ashcroft said the task force would review the Webster decision and recommend further abortion restrictions. "With its [the task force’s] guidance, we will press on to protect the lives of our future generations," he stated. Id. Ashcroft appointed seven "staunch abortion foes" to the panel, including two people who helped write the law at issue in Webster and three members of Missouri Citizens for Life. The newspaper reported that interviews with task force members revealed that they favored banning all abortions in Missouri except to save the life of the woman. Echoing Ashcroft’s 1981 testimony on the "Human Life Bill," one of the appointed members reportedly said that she felt that a majority of Supreme Court justices were looking for "excuses" to reverse Roe v. Wade and that "[m]aybe we [the taskforce] can give them those excuses." Id.

According to public reports, Ashcroft’s unilateral appointment of a clearly biased and activist, anti-abortion task force seriously disturbed leaders of the Missouri House and Senate, both of whom refused to participate in the taskforce. UPI (7/25/89). Missouri House Speaker Bob Griffin said, "I told the governor I had never been involved and didn’t want to be involved in appointing people to a task force when it was stacked going in...If the purpose of the task force is to do evaluations and to determine what is a best course of action for us to follow, I didn’t think it should be composed of people who had already made up their minds...I thought the task force ought to have some balance..." Id. Griffin and Senate President Pro Tem James Mathewson were quoted as saying the task force was "obviously slanted toward one side of the issue" and not "a fair way to proceed in trying to arrive at a consensus." Riverfront Times, at 10 (7/26/89-8/1/89).

One of the members of the task force from the Missouri Citizens for Life responded to the criticism of the biased nature of the panel by reportedly stating, "What did you expect the governor to do? Would you invite a member of the Ku Klux Klan to sit on the civil rights commission? The governor is very clear - he wants to stop abortion. You’re not going to put people on who will try to scuttle that." St. Louis Post-Dispatch (1/14/90). In the end, perhaps as a result of all the controversy surrounding the task force, the panel issued a short report that "covered little new ground and endorsed no specific legislation to ban abortion." St. Louis Post-Dispatch (1/14/90). The report did contain "one sentence urging legislators to pass a law challenging Roe v. Wade..." Id.

Some of the same members of Ashcroft’s "Task Force for Mothers and Unborn Children" were involved in a prior "Task Force on Unwed Sexual Activity and Pregnancy" that was intended to address the problem of high teenage pregnancy in Missouri, particularly in urban areas in St. Louis. However, like the subsequent Task Force on Mothers and Unborn Children, this one became dominated by anti-choice activists who turned the project into an ideological crusade for chastity and against birth control and sex education. Riverfront Times (12/18/88). According to an in-depth article, "[a]fter spending 14 months,...the task force produce[d] a 203-page report so biased and unrealistic that five of the group’s 15 members refuse[d] to sign it, calling it ‘a disaster’." Id. A St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorial described the final report as "straight out of the 19th century." Id. In addition to recommending "bans against educating teens about contraception and abortion," the final report "says the state should not fund health clinics at school." Id. The task force members reportedly "went so far as to say that sex education does not reduce teenage pregnancy," and made the astonishing claim in their final report that use of contraceptives may lead to "an increased pregnancy and abortion rate." Id.

According to an Ashcroft spokesperson, the Governor was "not embarrassed at all [by the report] and look[ed] forward to the legislature’s reaction to the proposals in the report." Id. The article indicates that despite voicing concerns about the high teen pregnancy rate, the governor had "taken no steps to act on the problem." Id. In addition, in 1993, the Chairperson of Pro-choice Republicans of Missouri, Karen Grace, noted the state’s failure to provide support for family planning during Ashcroft’s tenure as governor, something that would reduce the need for and number of abortions. Riverfront Times, at 17 (1/27/93-2/2/93). Chairperson Grace stated: "I have no problem with people not supporting abortion, but you’d think they’d be very gung-ho about family planning. That’s the answer. We have no state funding for family planning in Missouri, and I find that baffling." Id.

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