The Corner

The War on Science

If you haven’t read Shannen Coffin’s piece on Elena Kagan and the partial-birth-abortion debate today, you really should. What he describes, based on newly released Clinton White House memos, is absolutely astonishing.

It seems that the most important statement in the famous position paper of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists—a 1996 document that was central to the case of partial-birth-abortion defenders for the subsequent decade and played a major role in a number of court cases and political battles—was drafted not by an impartial committee of physicians, as both ACOG and the pro-abortion lobby claimed for years, but by Elena Kagan, who was then the deputy assistant to the president for domestic policy.

Kagan saw ACOG’s original paper, which did not include the claim that partial-birth abortion “may be the best or most appropriate procedure in a particular circumstance to save the life or preserve the health of a woman,” but, on the contrary, said that ACOG “could identify no circumstances under which this procedure . . . would be the only option to save the life or preserve the health of the woman.” She wrote a memo to two White House colleagues noting that this language would be “a disaster” for the cause of partial-birth abortion, and she then set out to do something about it. In notes released by the White House it now looks as though Kagan herself—a senior Clinton White House staffer with no medical background—proposed the “may be the best or most appropriate procedure in a particular circumstance to save the life or preserve the health of a woman” language, and sent it to ACOG, which then included that language in its final statement.

What’s described in these memos is easily the most serious and flagrant violation of the boundary between scientific expertise and politics I have ever encountered. A White House official formulating a substantive policy position for a supposedly impartial physicians’ group, and a position at odds with what that group’s own policy committee had actually concluded?  You have to wonder where all the defenders of science—those intrepid guardians of the freedom of inquiry who throughout the Bush years wailed about the supposed politicization of scientific research and expertise—are now. If the Bush White House (in which I served as a domestic policy staffer) had ever done anything even close to this it would have been declared a monumental scandal, and rightly so.  

Apparently scientific integrity only matters as long as it doesn’t somehow infringe on abortion. That, of course, was always the lesson of the stem-cell debate in the Bush years anyhow. But clearly it started earlier. It’s good to know where Kagan’s priorities are. Let’s hope senators are paying attention.

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