Foster Fight Marks Return of War over Social Issues

Article excerpt

HENRY FOSTER insists that his nomination to be surgeon general is not "about abortion."

But, in fact, that is what it has become. And as a Senate committee began consideration this week of Dr. Foster's qualifications for the post, it signaled the end of a near cease-fire in Congress's abortion wars.

It also heralds the reemergence of prickly social issues, including school prayer and affirmative action, that were largely not dealt with in Congress's first 100 days. It will be the first major test, too, of the anti-abortion credentials of two top contenders for the GOP presidential nomination: Senate majority leader Bob Dole of Kansas and Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas.

The pro-life movement has been disappointed by GOP leaders this year. On the Foster nomination, anti-abortion activists expect the Senate leadership to do all it can to defeat the Tennessee obstetrician-gynecologist, who, on his nomination in February, understated the number of abortions he had performed.

But some anti-abortion supporters won't be satisfied just with Foster's defeat. They want senators opposed to abortion to say they are voting against Foster because of his abortion record and not hide behind objections to a "lack of credibility."

"Many Republicans are uncomfortable saying that their opposition is over abortion," says Jeffrey Bell, a Republican anti-abortion activist. "It's the issue that dare not speak its name."

Foster and his supporters have expressed enormous frustration over a feeling that he has become a caricature: "Dr. Foster, the abortionist." On the first day of hearings, Foster fairly leapt out of his chair with enthusiasm for the opportunity to define himself as a doctor who has delivered thousands of babies, set up an award-winning program to help teens avoid pregnancy, and is a leading medical educator.

But the skirmishing over his abortion record has left him facing an uphill battle even to reach the Senate floor for a vote. Senator Dole has threatened to bar such a vote, and there is talk of a Republican filibuster if floor debate begins.

In the broader abortion wars, this could be only the beginning of a new wave of battles. In the House, where the issue was intentionally kept on the back burner during the charged first 100 days, anti-abortion members are talking about trying such moves as defunding test trials for the anti-abortion pill; reinstating a ban on discussion of abortion in federally funded clinics; barring the District of Columbia from spending its money on abortions; and establishing a nationwide, 24-hour waiting period for women seeking abortions. …