WASHINGTON (BP)–A controversial nominee to the Department of Justice whose abortion views drew considerable criticism withdrew her nomination from the Senate April 9, a move that drew grumbles from liberal groups but cheers from conservative ones.
President Obama had twice nominated Dawn Johnsen to head the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, an important office given the task of providing the president and military leaders legal advice. But after she never received a Senate floor vote — despite being OK’d by the Judiciary Committee last year and this year — the White House said late Friday that Johnsen had withdrawn her nomination, an announcement apparently timed to bury it in the news on the same day Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens announced his retirement plans. Republicans had threatened to filibuster her nomination, a filibuster that could have been joined by some Democrats.
Johnsen — currently a law professor at Indiana University — was controversial enough to pro-family groups because from 1993-98 she had served as legal director of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, now known as NARAL Pro-Choice America, and prior to that she had a role with the American Civil Liberties Union’s Reproductive Freedom Project, which focused on keeping abortion legal. But Johnsen’s statements about abortion, the groups said, made her nomination even more contentious.
Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, sent a Feb. 4 letter to the top Democrat and Republican on the Judiciary Committee, urging them to defeat her nomination. Her “radical” statements, Land said, had including the defaming of “mothers, pregnancy, and the unborn.”
“[Johnsen] compared pregnancy with slavery, declaring that abortion restrictions are ‘disturbingly suggestive of involuntary servitude, prohibited by the Thirteenth Amendment,'” Land wrote. “She has also called pregnant women mere ‘fetal containers’ and dismissed efforts to reduce the number of abortions as ‘nonsensical.'”
Land was referencing in part a much-debated NARAL legal brief from 1989 in which Johnsen wrote, “While a woman might choose to bear children gladly and voluntarily, statutes that curtail her abortion choice are disturbingly suggestive of involuntary servitude, prohibited by the Thirteenth Amendment, in that forced pregnancy requires a woman to provide continuous physical service to the fetus in order to further the state’s asserted interest. Indeed, the actual process of delivery demands work of the most intense and physical kind: labor of 12 or more grueling hours of contractions is not uncommon.”
The 13th Amendment abolished slavery and “involuntary servitude.”
Johnsen’s positions on President Bush’s anti-terrorism policies also had led to much opposition.
The Judiciary Committee voted her out of committee 12-7 this year, 11-7 last year. Obama nominated her before he even took office, and pro-family groups nearly immediately stated their opposition.
Family Research Council President Tony Perkins called Johnsen’s withdrawal a “significant victory.”
“The former counsel to NARAL Pro-Choice America was such a left-wing zealot … that even Democrats had a hard time stomaching her appointment,” Perkins said. “… President Obama could have bypassed Congress altogether by making hers a recess appointment. He refused, hinting that even the White House knows when to step back. The last thing Democrats need after the PR disaster of the health care bill is to defend a far-Left ideologue going into the elections.”
But The New York Times’ editorial board expressed frustration.
“The White House let Ms. Johnsen twist in the wind for more than a year and then chose to abandon her nomination rather than get into a battle over an appointment just before Mr. Obama makes his second nomination to the Supreme Court,” The Times editorial read.
Compiled by Michael Foust, an assistant editor of Baptist Press. With reporting by Tom Strode, Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press.