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Wednesday, 24 January, 2001, 18:36 GMT
Analysis: Bush's abortion signal
George W Bush in a Cabinet meeting, during which he said he was disallowing funding of abortion groups
Bush has banned federal funding of abortion groups
By US affairs analyst Gordon Corera

On the surface, abortion is a strange issue for George W Bush to take up in his opening days in office.

In his first real policy announcement, he reinstated a ban first introduced by Ronald Reagan in 1984 which banned the US Government from giving money to international groups that lobbied for or provided abortions.

Abortion is perhaps the most divisive issue in the US today, around which the passions are especially strong and politicians usually tread especially delicately.
Anti-abortion protesters mark the 28th anniversary of the landmark Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision making abortion
Bush's decision coincided with the anniversary of the Roe vs Wade ruling

But the move was not necessarily a surprise. Exactly eight years ago to the day, Bill Clinton had overturned the Reagan ban and this is an issue that tends to go back and forth between Democrats and Republicans.

They key question is whether it is the beginning of a deeper challenge from the Bush White House to the current abortion laws, or more of a symbolic gesture to appease the right wing of his party.

Right-wing approval

The right of the party was already extremely pleased by Mr Bush's nomination of John Ashcroft for attorney-general.

But the idea of having an extremely ardent anti-abortionist supervising the laws of the country raised major alarm bells amongst liberals who were also worried by the nomination of Tommy Thompson, another staunch opponent of abortion, to the position of secretary of health and human services.

The move came on the 28th anniversary of the Roe vs Wade decision by the Supreme Court - the decision which effectively made abortion legal across the US and the decision that is the ultimate target of conservative pro-life activists.

Conservative activists pronounced themselves well satisfied with the move, but they see it as only the start on the road to overturning the Roe vs Wade decision and having a full ban on abortion. They have been worried by signs that the Bush administration does not share this long-term goal - at least publicly - and will continue to press on for more.

Contentious issue

The next battles are likely to be over an abortion pill and the partial birth abortion procedure. But expect real fireworks from all sides when Mr Bush is given the chance to appoint justices to the Supreme Court, the place where many of the issues surrounding abortion end up, and which is the one body which can overturn Roe vs Wade.

US President George W Bush
What does Bush's "compassionate conservatism" mean?
What makes the issue complicated is that while there are extremely committed groups of activists on both sides, most Americans have more complex views on the subject, with a majority believing abortion is generally wrong but also unwilling to necessarily legislate to ban it.

This means that while politicians are subject to heavy lobbying from the activists, they also know that if they listen to them too much, they risk alienating the large middle ground of the electorate.

The Bush move also raises some interesting questions about what "compassionate conservatism" will mean in practice.

Centrist speech

The Republican platform on which Mr Bush ran was strongly anti-abortion, but he did not emphasise the issue during the campaign, knowing that it would undermine his attempts to capture the centre ground.

Bush's inaugural speech was deeply centrist, and talked about working across party lines and winning the support of the whole nation. But his cabinet appointments, and some of his early moves, such as sticking to his $1.6 trillion tax cut as well as the abortion move, signal a pretty conservative stance.

It is still too early to tell whether there will be a major gap between talk and action, but if there is, it is sure to be picked up on. And perhaps the key place to look is on abortion and whether Mr Bush's early actions are the start of something bigger.

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See also:

23 Jan 01 | Americas
Bush blocks abortion funding
23 Jan 01 | Americas
EU condemns Bush abortion move
22 Jan 01 | Americas
The history of Roe vs Wade
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