When President Obama promised in his inaugural address to “restore science to its rightful place,” he never explained what that rightful place would be. Documents recently released in connection with the Supreme Court nomination of Solicitor General Elena Kagan suggest an answer: wherever it can best be used to skew political debate and judicial outcomes.
The documents involved date from the Clinton White House. They show Miss Kagan’s willingness to manipulate medical science to fit the Democratic party’s political agenda on the hot-button issue of abortion. As such, they reflect poorly on both the author and the president who nominated her to the Supreme Court.
There is no better example of this distortion of science than the language the United States Supreme Court cited in striking down Nebraska’s ban on partial-birth abortion in 2000. This language purported to come from a “select panel” of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), a supposedly nonpartisan physicians’ group. ACOG declared that the partial-birth-abortion procedure “may be the best or most appropriate procedure in a particular circumstance to save the life or preserve the health of a woman.” The Court relied on the ACOG statement as a key example of medical opinion supporting the abortion method.
Years later, when President Bush signed a federal partial-birth-abortion ban (something President Clinton had vetoed), the ACOG official policy statement was front and center in the attack on the legislation. U.S. District Court Judge Richard Kopf, one of the three federal judges that issued orders enjoining the federal ban (later overturned by the Supreme Court), devoted more than 15 pages of his lengthy opinion to ACOG’s policy statement and the integrity of the process that led to it.
Like the Supreme Court majority in the prior dispute over the Nebraska ban, Judge Kopf asserted that the ACOG policy statement was entitled to judicial deference because it was the result of an inscrutable collaborative process among expert medical professionals. “Before and during the task force meeting,” he concluded, “neither ACOG nor the task force members conversed with other individuals or organizations, including congressmen and doctors who provided congressional testimony, concerning the topics addressed” in the ACOG statement.
In other words, what medical science has pronounced, let no court dare question. The problem is that the critical language of the ACOG statement was not drafted by scientists and doctors. Rather, it was inserted into ACOG’s policy statement at the suggestion of then–Clinton White House policy adviser Elena Kagan.
The task force’s initial draft statement did not include the statement that the controversial abortion procedure “might be” the best method “in a particular circumstance.” Instead, it said that the select ACOG panel “could identify no circumstances under which this procedure . . . would be the only option to save the life or preserve the health of the woman.”
Notwithstanding its allegedly apolitical nature, ACOG shared this draft statement with the Clinton White House. Miss Kagan, then a deputy assistant to the president for domestic policy, already knew ACOG’s stance as a result of a July 1996 meeting at the White House, at which ACOG representatives told administration officials — according to a Kagan memorandum [PDF] — that “in the vast majority of cases, selection of the partial birth procedure is not necessary to avert serious adverse consequences to a woman’s health.”
Upon receiving the task force’s draft statement, Kagan noted in another internal memorandum [PDF] that the draft ACOG formulation “would be a disaster — not the less so (in fact, the more so) because ACOG continues to oppose the legislation.” Any expression of doubt by a leading medical body about the efficacy of the procedure would severely undermine the case against the ban.
So Kagan set about solving the problem. Her notes, produced by the White House to the Senate Judiciary Committee, show that she herself drafted the critical language hedging ACOG’s position. On a document [PDF] captioned “Suggested Options” — which she apparently faxed to the legislative director at ACOG — Kagan proposed that ACOG include the following language: “An intact D&X [the medical term for the procedure], however, may be the best or most appropriate procedure in a particular circumstance to save the life or preserve the health of a woman.”
Kagan’s language was copied verbatim by the ACOG executive board into its final statement, where it then became one of the greatest evidentiary hurdles faced by Justice Department lawyers (of whom I was one) in defending the federal ban. (Kagan’s role was never disclosed to the courts.) The judicial battles that followed led to two Supreme Court opinions, several trials, and countless felled trees. Now we learn that language purporting to be the judgment of an independent body of medical experts devoted to the care and treatment of pregnant women and their children was, in the end, nothing more than the political scrawling of a White House appointee.
Miss Kagan’s decision to override a scientific finding with her own calculated distortion in order to protect access to the most despicable of abortion procedures seriously twisted the judicial process. One must question whether her nomination to the Court would have the same effect.
– Shannen W. Coffin, an attorney in Washington, D.C., was the deputy assistant attorney general in charge of the defense of the federal Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act during the Bush administration.