John Ashcroft's First Year as Attorney General

Reproductive Freedom

Opponents of Ashcroft's confirmation as attorney general were deeply concerned about his extreme anti-choice record as a public official. As attorney general, he has responsibility for enforcing the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act (FACE), reviewing pending Congressional legislation dealing with women's health, and coordinating the Task Force on Violence Against Health Care Providers. Ashcroft had once said he would dismantle the Task Force, but backed down from that promise during his confirmation hearings. The Task Force continues, but many have raised concerns about its effectiveness. Vicki Saporta of the National Abortion Federation says "It's now much harder to talk to career DOJ people; they have to get clearance just to speak with us."69

Ashcroft initially decided not to provide protection during an announced summer 2001 campaign by protesters affiliated with Operation Save America (formerly Operation Rescue) targeting the Wichita, Kansas clinic operated by Dr. George Tiller, a physician who was shot in front of his clinic in 1993. However, as three abortion rights groups called a news conference to denounce Ashcroft's decision, the Justice Department reversed its decision and announced it would send U.S. Deputy Marshals to help protect Tiller.

Following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, there was a rash of false anthrax threats made against various groups, with hundreds of women's health clinics receiving threat letters in the mail. On Oct. 16, Ashcroft issued the following statement regarding anthrax hoaxes: "The Department of Justice will prosecute and punish with the full force of our laws, those who issue false anthrax threats or any other form of terrorist threat."70 However, at least initially, the attorney general seemed reluctant to vigorously pursue those who committed anthrax threats against family planning clinics.

Pro-choice groups criticized Ashcroft's silence in the months following two mass mailings of anthrax threat letters to abortion clinics. As the National Abortion Federation's Saporta put it, "This is the largest single orchestrated anthrax threat against any type of organization. And it seems to us that [Ashcroft] sometimes goes out of his way not to mention the fact." Pro-choice advocates also accused Ashcroft of denying requests for a meeting to discuss security concerns at women's health clinics.71 On Oct. 26, Senator Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., sent the attorney general a letter urging him to "act with … resolve" in addressing anthrax threats against family planning groups.72

In December, the FBI did arrest self-proclaimed anti-abortion "warrior" Clayton Lee Waagner, who Ashcroft called the prime suspect behind anthrax hoaxes against 280 women's health clinics. Waagner, an escaped prisoner who has been convicted of firearms and auto theft and accused of bank robbery, was on the FBI's 10 most-wanted fugitive list.

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