At the Louisiana Right to Life Forum on Nov. 15, 2013, Mike Johnson — still lawyer, and not yet a public official — spoke about his efforts challenging the Department of Health and Human Services’ contraceptive mandate, a provision of the Affordable Care Act that required employers to provide birth control coverage as part of their insurance plans.
In his view, Johnson explained, certain types of birth control are methods of abortion.
“Everybody asks us all the time: ‘Why do you guys care so much? The HHS mandate it’s really just about contraception, sterilization. … What’s the big deal? Well, those are abortifacients,” Johnson says. “The morning after pill, as we know, is an abortifacient.”
Neither sterilization or emergency contraception medications like Plan B, are abortifacients. Both are forms of birth control that prevent a pregnancy from occurring, but do not end an existing pregnancy. A representative for Johnson, now the speaker of the House of Representatives, did not respond to an inquiry about whether Johnson still believes those forms of birth control are “abortifacients.”
Johnson is known for being among the most anti-abortion lawmakers in Congress, and for railing against the use of “abortion as a form of birth control” before he was in office. But his statements and actions suggest he does not see much difference between abortion as a form of birth control and birth control as a form of birth control.
As a lawyer, Johnson worked on multiple cases representing plaintiffs who refused to dispense, counsel or provide emergency contraception, which they considered to be abortion-inducing drugs. And as a congressman, Johnson has repeatedly voted against efforts to expand, fund or protect access to birth control and other family planning services — including for members of the military.
While a certain, largely female segment of the Republican party has undertaken efforts to expand access to birth control in the wake of Dobbs, Johnson has not joined those efforts.
His position places Johnson outside the mainstream: According to an Economist/YouGov poll conducted last year, 91 percent of voters believe birth control should be made free and widely available if abortion is not — including 61 percent of voters who oppose abortion. Earlier this year in Kentucky, Daniel Cameron, the Republican candidate for governor, was forced to clarify his position on birth control, after an outcry over his answers on a candidate survey suggested he believed some methods of birth control were forms of abortion that should be punishable with criminal penalties.
But, as the publication Abortion Everyday has reported, the misconception that certain types of birth control are essentially abortion has in recent years gained a foothold among some of the country’s most strident anti-abortion groups. The prominent anti-abortion advocacy group Students for Life maintains that IUDs, emergency contraception, and hormonal birth control all qualify as “abortifacients.” (When Johnson was elevated to House Speaker, Students for Life proudly announced that he holds an A+ rating from the organization.) Concerned Women for America, meanwhile, holds that abortion “is the termination of the development of life in the womb at any time from the moment of fertilization.”
At the time Johnson equated emergency contraception with abortion at the Louisiana Right to Life Forum, he was part of the legal team representing Louisiana College. The small Christian college, based in Pineville, was suing Kathleen Sebelius, then secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services over the ACA requirement that the college provide birth control coverage for its employees. The school, according to the lawsuit, objected to providing “so-called ‘emergency contraceptives’” that they claimed “cause early abortions.”
Years earlier, Johnson, was a lawyer for the right-wing religious litigation shop Alliance Defense Fund, later rechristened the Alliance Defending Freedom. While working for the ADF, Johnson represented Toni Lemly, a Louisiana nurse who refused to dispense emergency contraception — or even tell patients about the medication.
Lemly, who worked in the family planning clinic at St. Tammany Parish Hospital’s community wellness center, had her hours reduced from full-time to part-time after she refused to counsel patients about their birth control options. At the time, Johnson said, “All that she asks of the hospital is to respect her freedom in choosing to not participate in the taking of a human life.”
The Alliance Defending Freedom, like Johnson, did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
Since arriving in Congress, Johnson has continued to champion these views. He supported a rule that allowed health care workers with a “religious or conscience” objection to providing birth control or sterilization to refuse to participate in those procedures. He also voted against the Right to Contraception Act, which would have protected access to birth control, and participated in a number of legislative efforts to keep the bill from getting to the floor. It did so — and passed — despite Johnson’s efforts.