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Bill Frist, R-Tenn., reportedly the White House choice to succeed
Trent Lott, R-Miss., as Senate majority leader, is a major shareholder
in HCA, a for-profit hospital chain founded by his father and brother.
HCA reportedly provides abortions to its customers.

So now Republicans face this question: If it is disqualifying for their
Senate leader to make offensive remarks interpreted as endorsing an
immoral policy that denied African-Americans equal rights, is it also
disqualifying for their Senate leader to make money from a hospital
chain that denies unborn babies the right to life?

Frist has deposited his major stockholdings in a “blind trust”
chartered Dec. 28, 2000. A schedule of the original assets in this trust
filed with the Senate showed holdings in 16 companies. Frist reported
the value of these assets, as per Senate rules, within broad ranges
(e.g., $1,001-$15,001). If the lowest possible value is assigned to each
holding, Frist at that time had invested a minimum of $566,015 in 15
other companies, while investing at least $5,000,001 in HCA.

That would mean that approximately 89% of his holdings were in this
company.

Furthermore, on its face, the trust agreement appears structured to
allow the administrators to maintain this heavy concentration in HCA
stock. It also specifically instructs the administrators to inform Frist
if they divest entirely from any holding, including HCA. And, finally,
it gives Frist the power to directly order the administrators to divest
from HCA or any other holding that Frist determines “creates a
conflict of interest or the appearance thereof.”

HCA does not trumpet its reported involvement with abortion. But, in
April, Catholic Financial Services Corporation, a mutual fund
company, announced that it was starting an S&P 500 Index Fund that
would “exclude companies on the abortion issue” – and that
HCA was one of only six companies on the index that would be excluded
on these grounds. A spokesman for the mutual fund explained to me last
week that the company excludes hospital chains that perform abortions
and pharmaceutical companies that deal in drugs that induce abortion.

On Dec. 18 and 19, I placed several calls to HCA corporate spokesman
Jeff Prescott, to ask him directly whether abortions were performed
in HCA facilities, or whether the company refuted CFSC’s determination
that they were. I left him voice messages to this effect, and repeatedly
told his secretary my questions. At 5:00 p.m. on the 19th, as press
time approached, the secretary left me lingering on hold with no answer.
When I hung up and called back, I got Prescott’s voice mail again
and left him one last message. He never returned my call.

I also spoke with Sen. Frist’s spokesman, Nick Smith. I explained
to Smith my understanding that the terms of Frist’s “blind”
trust allowed the administrators to maintain a heavy concentration in
HCA, while allowing Frist to order the sale of this stock, and while
also compelling the administrators to inform Frist if they divested
entirely from HCA or any other holding. I cited the specific passages
in the trust to this effect. I also asked Smith to clarify Frist’s
position on abortion – which has confounded pro-lifers over the years – and
why Frist would not divest, since he apparently could, from a company
that reportedly performs abortions.

When Frist first ran for the Senate in 1994, the Nashville Banner reported
that he “frequently” said he “does not believe abortion
should be outlawed.” In a May 1994 radio interview, the Banner
reported, Frist said, “It’s a very private decision.”
One of Frist’s Republican primary rivals, Steve Wilson, the Banner
said, “demanded that Frist sell his millions of dollars in stock
in the Hospital Corporation of America, which Frist’s family
founded. Some of the hospitals in the chain perform abortions.”

Tennessee Right to Life PAC Director Sherry Holden, however, told the
Banner that Frist had told her organization he was pro-life. “He
said he’s against abortion, period – no exceptions, except rape
and incest,” said Holden.

Yet, an Oct. 10, 1994, Memphis Commercial Appeal report on a debate
between Frist and incumbent Sen. Jim Sasser, D.-Tenn., said: “There
were some topics on which the candidates agreed – both said they’re
personally opposed to abortion but don’t think the government should
prohibit abortions.”

I asked Smith whether Frist wanted to prohibit abortion either by constitutional
amendment or by over-turning Roe v. Wade and enacting prohibitions in
the states, including Tennessee.

Smith responded by faxing me a statement. The White House, pro-life
Republican senators, and their grass-roots supporters can decide whether
it is responsive:

“These two issues [the HCA investment and abortion] are separate
and distinct,” wrote Smith.

“On his own accord, by placing his assets in a federally qualified
blind trust, Sen. Frist took a step above and beyond to ensure there
is no conflict of interest,” wrote Smith. “He believes this
was the proper and responsible thing to do. He has never been employed
by, or served on the board of, HCA or any of its hospitals.

“As a U.S. senator who acts on public policy each and every day,
his record on abortion is clear,” Smith continued. “He is
opposed to abortion except in the instances of rape, incest and when
the life of the mother is threatened. He is opposed to federal funding
of abortion. And in the Senate, he led the fight against partial-birth
abortion.”

His Senate website includes a statement saying, “No one can deny
the potential human cloning holds for increased scientific understanding.
But . . . I am unable to find a compelling justification for allowing
human cloning today.”

As Bill Clinton might say, that doesn’t rule out tomorrow – when
he may be Senate majority leader.


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