RU-486: FDA Approval Evokes Political ‘Tempest’
While presidential candidates Texas Gov. George W. Bush (R) and Vice President Al Gore have avoided the abortion issue on the campaign trail, yesterday's FDA decision to approve mifepristone prompted a political "tempest," returning the "emotional issue" to the fore, the Boston Globe reports. Bush called the decision "wrong," warning, "I fear making this abortion pill widespread will make abortions more common. As president, I will work to build a culture that respects life." According to Gore, however, "[The FDA's] decision is not about politics, but the health and safety of American women and a woman's fundamental right to choose" (Leonard, Boston Globe, 9/29). The vice president also weighed in during an appearance on CNN's "Larry King Live" last night. "I support the FDA's approval. ... I do not think ... that [mifepristone] ought to be kept away from women for some political reason. I support a woman's right to choose," he said (CNN, "Larry King Live," 9/28). Although Bush spokesperson Ari Fleischer said that the Texas governor, if elected, "wouldn't directly interfere" with the FDA decision, Gore added that Bush would sign a bill from Congress banning mifepristone (Rauber, New York Post, 9/29).
Abortion Groups Rally
Until now, Bush has "downplayed the abortion issue" as he tries to "woo" women voters, the Boston Globe reports. "Bush would like to submerge his antichoice positions as he tries to capture the presidency," Betsy Cavendish, legal director of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, said. But, she added, "He should be worried about [the FDA's] decision, because it underscores that he is opposed to a woman's right to choose in the first weeks of pregnancy." She said the decision would "energize" abortion-rights supporters to campaign for Gore. According to Bush adviser and former Christian Coalition head Ralph Reed, however, the mifepristone decision "could hurt Gore," because it "will not be popular" among Catholics, a key voting bloc in the battleground states. "I tend to think abortion is an issue that slightly favors Bush. To many ethnic Catholics, the idea of the government approving a pill that essentially causes an abortion is deeply disturbing," he said, noting that the decision will "galvanize" supporters on both sides of the abortion debate. Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation, agreed, arguing, "I think this was a major blow to opponents of abortion, and some of them will definitely try to put the issue into presidential politics to rally the right-wing on the Republican Party" (Boston Globe, 9/29). Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) predicted a similar reaction from the abortion rights corner. "Pro-choice women should be very disturbed (about Bush's position)," she said, adding, "I predict they will reject his anti-choice policies and vote for Al Gore" (Povich, Newsday, 9/29).
GOP Vows to Fight
President Clinton praised the FDA ruling, stating that the agency "bent over backwards" to make an appropriate decision. "I regret some members of the other party have already tried to politicize it," he said, adding, "I think it ought to be treated as the scientific and medical decision that it was." Several Republican lawmakers, however, criticized the president and his administration after the decision. "Bill Clinton got the legacy he was looking for. This is a sad day for America," Rep. J.C. Watts (R-Okla.) said (Duin, Washington Times, 9/28). "This administration has completely politicized the drug approval process, proving they are more concerned with rewarding the abortion lobby than the safety of the drugs that are approved," Sen. Tim Hutchinson (R-Ark.) said, accusing the FDA of "rushing a drug through that will take lives instead of saving them" (Boston Globe, 9/29). House GOP leaders also said they may attempt to "modify or overturn" the FDA ruling (Newsday, 9/29). The House narrowly passed measures banning mifepristone in 1997, 1998 and 1999, but they never became law (New York Post, 9/29). "We will make every effort we can (to block the decision)," House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) said (Newsday, 9/29). He added, "President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore used to say they wanted abortion to be rare, but they've done everything they can to make abortion more common" (Reuters/AZCentral.com, 9/29). Rep. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) "vowed to press" a measure that would tightly restrict access and use of mifepristone. "Never before has the FDA approved a drug intended to kill people," he said, referring to fetuses (Newsday, 9/29). He added, "I am appalled that the FDA appears to have bowed to the political pressure from the abortion lobby, and the White House approved the drug with inadequate patient protections" (Reuters/AZCentral.com, 9/29). Still, members admitted that "it was very unlikely anything would happen in the waning days of Congress" (Boston Globe, 9/29).
The FDA decision may also play a role in the hotly contested New York Senate race between Rep. Rick Lazio (R-N.Y.) and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton (D) (New York Post, 9/29). Clinton lauded the FDA ruling, stating, "This decision will help ensure that women in the United States will have access to a safe and effective option that women in other countries have had for years" (Associated Press, 9/29). Although Lazio generally favors abortion rights, Clinton supporters attacked him for missing a vote on a 1997 House bill that would have banned mifepristone. According to Lazio spokesperson Mollie Conkey Fullington, however, while Lazio "did miss that vote," he voted against similar legislation in 1998 and 1999. "He has consistently voted against bills which would have prohibited development or approval of the drug," she said (Newsday, 9/29).