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Republicans play a dangerous game with birth control

Very few voters opposed the Right to Contraception Act. By voting against it, the GOP is handing Democrats a rallying cry.

FILE - A one-month dosage of hormonal birth-control pills
AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli
June 11, 2024, 2:30 p.m.

Last week, most Senate Republicans voted against a bill that would codify the right to contraception into federal law. Only two GOP members voted for the legislation—Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins.

That’s right: Every other Senate Republican voted nay on a bill that would simply guarantee access to birth control. Nothing about abortion. Just birth control.

Republicans claimed it was unnecessary legislation put up to a vote by Democrats for political reasons. But in breaking from her party, Murkowski said, "If it's a messaging bill, my message is women should have access to contraception."

Most Americans agree with Murkowski. In a 2023 Gallup survey, 88 percent of Americans said that using birth control is morally acceptable. A survey from Impact Research in early 2024 tested support for this legislation and found 81 percent of voters in favor, including 61 percent who strongly favor it. Two-thirds of Republican voters indicated their support for the bill.

Since the Dobbs decision overturning Roe v. Wade, Republicans have been the party of ever-stricter laws on abortion—to the point that so far in 2024, we have seen many candidates backing off those stringent positions. They have realized that strict abortion bans are an electoral loser for them, although that hasn’t exactly led to reversing the laws in states where they exist.

The Right to Contraception Act seems as though it would be a good way for Senate Republicans to signal their moderation on the issue—without even moderating on the issue of abortion, because contraceptives have nothing to do with abortion. So why break from the vast majority of their own voters’ opinions?

While it may not be good electoral strategy to vote against something that 80-plus percent of voters approve of—do they even realize how few issues get that kind of support?—there are two sticking points in the birth-control battle.

One is religious exemptions—some Republican lawmakers worry that judges could interpret the bill to force organizations to provide access to birth control against their religious beliefs.

Republicans chose the religious angle carefully to appeal to their voters. We’ve been talking about religious exemptions to birth-control-access mandates since the Affordable Care Act required employer-provided insurance to cover birth control. The Supreme Court decided in 2014 that privately held corporations did not have to follow the mandate. Public opinion on religious exemptions to birth-control insurance coverage mandates is divided: In most cases, majorities of Americans say employers should have to provide coverage, but the partisan divides are massive, with a majority of Republicans supporting exemptions.

The Right to Contraception Act, however, doesn’t force private entities to provide birth-control access—it just says no government at the local, state, or federal level can interfere with access. It is unclear where religious exemptions fit into that framework.

The second part of Republicans’ objections deal with the types of birth control the bill would protect: In short, all forms of contraception are included. There is a lot of misinformation regarding the emergency “Plan B” contraceptive, intrauterine devices (IUDs), and sometimes even birth-control pills, claiming these forms of birth control cause abortions. Much of this misinformation is coming from the Far Right, and it’s directed toward state legislatures in deep red states.

To be clear: These birth-control methods do not cause abortions. In every case, the device or medication prevents a pregnancy from occurring; abortion can happen only once a pregnancy exists.

Yet KFF polling shows that a whopping 73 percent of Americans who have heard of Plan B think it can end a pregnancy in its early stages, including two-thirds of women ages 18-49. Senate Republicans seem to be part of that 73 percent—or at least, they are acting as if they don’t know these are not abortifacients.

When it comes to public opinion, it’s not too surprising for voters to have inaccurate views. After all, they are busy and generally only think about what is most relevant to their lives. It’s not that surprising that many would not have given much thought to how Plan B actually works, or what an IUD does.

But we should expect more from our legislators. To make—or block—laws for an entire country based on misinformation and outright lies about how contraceptives work is unacceptable and dangerous to women’s health.

In this environment, it is no surprise that less than half of women (40 percent) say access to birth control is a secure right, and many say the 2024 elections will have a considerable impact on that access.

Contributing editor Natalie Jackson is a vice president with GQR Research.

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