Senator John Ashcroft, President-elect George W. Bush’s nominee for Attorney General of the United States, is well known as a staunch opponent of women’s reproductive freedom. 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.
There is no question that Americans differ on the difficult issue of abortion. But Mr. Ashcroft’s positions on abortion and the right of women to control their own bodies are so far removed from those of most Americans as to raise significant doubts about his fitness to serve as the nation’s chief legal officer, a person who would be responsible for enforcing federal laws and protecting individual rights. Indeed, this is one of many reasons why John Ashcroft should not be confirmed as United States Attorney General.
Ashcroft’s extremism is evident in his support for a “Human Life Amendment” to the United States Constitution, and for the enactment of a similar provision into federal law. 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 of a proposed amendment to the Constitution (S.J. Res. 49), 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.
In seeking to ban abortions without any exception for victims of rape or incest, Senator Ashcroft is well out of step with the American public. According to a Gallup Poll taken in March-April 2000, 78% of respondents stated that abortion should be legal in cases of rape or incest. See www.gallup.com (visited Dec. 27, 2000).
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. See www.all.org. 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.” See www.all.org (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,” (at www.all.org, 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.
Millions of American women use contraceptives, including the contraceptives that Senator Ashcroft’s proposals would ban. According to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, 90% of American women between the ages of 15-44 who are fertile and sexually active and who do not want to become pregnant — some 39 million women — use some form of contraception. See www.agi-usa.org (visited Dec. 28, 2000). Of the millions of women practicing contraception, approximately 27% use the pill (which is also the most common contraceptive used by women in their twenties), and a total of approximately 5% use IUDs or injectable or implanted forms of contraception. There can be no real question that millions of American women (and their families) would object to, and be seriously harmed by, a ban on these contraceptives.
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. Aschcroft 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 also summed up his own 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) (emphasis added).
In May 1999, the same month in which Senator Ashcroft accepted an honorary degree from Bob Jones University, he was also honored by the American Life League.
As the country’s chief legal officer and lawyer for the President, the Attorney General has enormous power and influence over the existence and protection of women’s reproductive freedom. For example, the Attorney General is responsible for enforcing the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act and for seeing to it that this important law fulfills its intended purpose of helping ensure that women are free to exercise their right to make their own reproductive decisions. The Attorney General’s responsibilities also include reviewing and helping to select potential nominees for the federal bench. This includes lower court judges and Supreme Court Justices who may rule on issues pertaining to reproductive freedom and, indeed, whether Roe v. Wade remains the law of the land. The screening and selection process carried out in the Department of Justice helps determine whether the men and women who come before the Senate for confirmation to the third branch of government are fair-minded individuals committed to the fundamental American principle of equal justice for all, or are ideologues chosen to advance a specific social and legal agenda.
The Attorney General also reviews proposed legislation, and renders advice as to whether particular proposals violate the Constitution as interpreted by the Supreme Court, which has repeatedly held that women have the constitutional right to choose abortion and that this right cannot be unreasonably burdened. And, through the Office of the Solicitor General, the Attorney General represents the United States before the Supreme Court, where he or she is in a position to advocate on behalf of or in opposition to the right of women to reproductive freedom and choice.
John Ashcroft’s positions on these issues are too extreme for him to be given this critical power and influence over the lives of American women and their families.