It is well known that, throughout his long career, John Ashcroft has been a staunch opponent of the right of women to make their own reproductive decisions. What is less well known is that he is so extreme in his views that he supports enacting a federal law and amending the Constitution to ban abortions even when a woman has been raped or is the victim of incest. And he has advocated proposals in Congress that were so sweeping that they could have been invoked to use the government’s power to ban common forms of contraception, including the pill and IUDs, a little-publicized goal of some anti-choice organizations.
In 1998, during his term as a United States Senator, John Ashcroft, along with only Senators Jesse Helms and Bob Smith, was an original sponsor in the 105th Congress of a proposed amendment to the Constitution (S.J. Res. 49, the "Human Life Amendment") and a proposed federal statute (S. 2135, the "Human Life Act") that would have prohibited all abortions except those medical procedures "required to prevent the death of either the pregnant woman or her unborn offspring, as long as [the law authorizing such procedures] requires every reasonable effort be made to preserve the lives of both of them." The proposed amendment and statute contained no exception for victims of rape or incest, nor did they contain any exception for abortions necessary to prevent injury, including serious or permanent injury, to the woman’s health.
But Ashcroft’s proposals threatened even more extreme results. The sweeping language of the proposed "Human Life Amendment" and "Human Life Act" defined human life as beginning at "fertilization," and could therefore have been invoked to ban some of the most widely accepted and dependable forms of contraception, such as the pill and IUDs, which may sometimes work by preventing a fertilized egg from implanting in the lining of the uterus. In fact, banning these methods of contraception is a goal of such extreme anti-choice organizations as the American Life League, which opposes all abortions, without exception. The American Life League considers common forms of contraception, specifically including the pill and IUDs, to be "abortifacient in action [that] kill already existing human beings," and opposes "these devices." (link visited Dec. 27, 2000). The President of the American Life League has stated that the pill, the IUD, Norplant and Depo-Provera "can and do kill, and are therefore not contraceptives – we are talking about abortion." See "Pill Bill: Birth control is not healthcare," (visited Dec. 27, 2000).
John Ashcroft agrees that common forms of contraception that work by preventing implantation should be considered "abortifacients," and he has taken other steps beyond the legislative proposals discussed above to deny women access to them. In 1998, Ashcroft was one of just eight Senators, including Jesse Helms and Bob Smith, who signed a letter in opposition to pending legislation to require federal employee health insurance plans to cover the cost of prescription contraceptives. In their letter, Senator Ashcroft and his handful of colleagues stated: "we are concerned with what appears to be a loophole in the legislation regarding contraceptives that upon failing to prevent fertilization, act de facto as abortifacients. Therefore, we believe this amendment is a precedent setting attempt to mandate coverage of other abortifacients." They urged that the provision requiring coverage of contraceptives be dropped. See Letter to Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell from Senators Brownback, Nickles, Ashcroft, Coats, Helms, Enzi, Bob Smith, and Hutchinson (Sept. 4, 1998).
The legislation that Ashcroft opposed was endorsed by leading medical organizations, including the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Family Physicians, and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. In a letter supporting the proposal, the medical groups stated that "[a]ccess to reliable contraception should be a part of even the most basic health care plans." Congress ultimately enacted this proposal.
Lest there be any doubt about his desire to ban virtually all abortions, in May 1998, John Ashcroft submitted a written statement to Human Events: The National Conservative Weekly reconfirming his views. Ashcroft sent the document to correct statements in a form letter sent by his Senate office to his constituents saying that he believed in a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion in cases of rape or incest. In his statement to Human Events, Ashcroft repudiated the suggestion that he supported abortion in cases of rape or incest and detailed his lengthy public record in opposition to abortion. He summed up his position as follows: "[I]f I had the opportunity to pass but a single law, I would fully recognize the constitutional right to life of every unborn child, and ban every abortion except for those medically necessary to save the life of the mother." Human Events, at 7 (May 29, 1998).
In May 1999, the same month in which Senator Ashcroft accepted an honorary degree from Bob Jones University (see below), he was also honored by the American Life League. And, as discussed previously, Senator Ashcroft’s opposition to reproductive choice spurred him to lead a battle opposing the confirmation of Dr. David Satcher to be Surgeon General. Among his other votes denying women the right to make their own reproductive choices, Senator Ashcroft was in the minority in voting against a resolution that the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision should not be overturned, (Harkin Amendment to S. 1692, 10/21/99, 51Y-47N), and in voting in favor of prohibiting the use of tax funds for emergency contraceptives. (RCV# 169, S. 3697, 6/30/00, 41Y-54N.)