At George W. Bush’s presidential inauguration last Saturday, one could hear the sound of brakes screeching and gears shifting into reverse. This sound was the country taking one giant step backward. Bush lived up to expectations on his first day in office – he chose Jan. 22, the 28th anniversary of Roe vs. Wade, to issue an executive order rescinding federal aid to overseas organizations that provide abortion counseling or in any way help women obtain abortions. In one swift move, Bush signaled America’s descent into the depths of a Neo-Reagan era.
When Clinton became president in 1993, one of his first actions was to reverse this same executive order, initially imposed by President Reagan in 1984. Bush’s reinstatement of the ban came as little surprise to the nation; however, any lingering doubt about Bush’s true devotion to the ultra-conservative right must now have vanished. The speed with which Bush issued this order indicates his desire to appease the conservative base that supported him throughout his presidential campaign.
The spurious use of his executive power was merely a token gesture to please the right, and yet it has serious implications for overseas organizations. The foreign aid that will be cut amounts to $425 million annually – more than the GNP of most Third World countries such funding seeks to assist. The organizations that will be affected by this measure are “family planning” advocates, not “abortion” advocates. Family planning groups counsel women on multiple contraceptive options in addition to offering women the choice of a safe abortion – this is not an abortion issue; it is a women’s health issue.
The foreign aid ban will significantly impair the ability of these organizations to function effectively in places where population numbers are increasing exponentially and AIDS is rampant. Bush’s anti-abortion agenda will end up costing lives, the lives of women who must resort to “backyard,” primitive abortion procedures and the lives of those who will die from sexually transmitted diseases. AIDS is spreading faster in Africa than in any other area of the world. Reduced funding for contraceptive programs can only exacerbate this situation.
Perhaps the lack of public outrage at this decision can be attributed to the fact that Bush is fulfilling a longtime campaign pledge; or, perhaps it can be attributed to the fact that the measure is being implemented abroad and not at home. However, Bush’s decision to issue this executive order on the anniversary of Roe vs. Wade, the Supreme Court case protecting a woman’s right to seek an abortion, sends a clear message to pro-choice groups. In an executive memorandum to the Agency for International Development, which oversees the administration of family planning aid to international groups, Bush wrote, “It is my conviction that taxpayer funds should not be used to pay for abortions or advocate or actively promote abortion either here or abroad.”
Irrespective of whether or not Bush is seeking a reversal of Roe vs. Wade, the timing of this maneuver was extremely aggressive and lacks any sign of the greater bipartisanship or “compassionate conservatism” that his administration has purported. At a time when the country is still reeling from the messiest election in recent history and remains clearly divided, a gifted leader would have made conciliatory moves to repair America’s faith and trust in politics.
In his first week in office, George W. Bush chose the country’s most divisive and highly emotive issue to exercise his newly found – though questionably legitimate – executive power. By doing so, he managed to rub salt in a gaping wound. What are the plans for week two of the Bush reign?