Birth control is becoming a fierce new political battleground

May 24, 2024

Democrats are leaning into protecting birth control as part of their election year push on reproductive rights, looking to emphasize Republican efforts opposing protections many voters say they support. 

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) plans to hold a vote next month on the Right to Contraception Act.  

The effort will likely be blocked, but Democrats want to get Republicans on the record on contraception, especially as the GOP struggles with how to message its stance on reproductive rights in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade. 

Republicans blocked the same legislation last year, arguing that it was written to protect abortion drugs rather than contraceptives. 

Polling consistently shows there is broad bipartisan support for birth control. According to the annual Gallup values and beliefs poll released last year, 88 percent of Americans said birth control was morally acceptable.   

More recently, a February Impact Research poll commissioned by Americans for Contraception found contraception mobilizes voters who are currently less enthusiastic about the election, including young Hispanic and female voters and Black voters.

Most Republicans argue birth control isn’t at risk, and the people opposed to it are in a small minority. They say bills to protect access solve problems that don’t exist and are attempts to score political points.   

“If that’s the case, I don’t know why you don’t just support a bill that doesn’t matter anyway and make the issue go away, instead of giving Democrats ammunition,” said Mary Ziegler, law professor at the University of California, Davis School of Law and a leading abortion politics scholar. 

Former President Trump this week brought the issue back into the national spotlight when he indicated in a television interview he would leave contraception policy to the states but was supportive of efforts to limit access. 

The presumptive GOP nominee quickly backtracked on social media, saying “I have never and never will advocate imposing restrictions on birth control or other contraceptives.” 

Trump then went further, saying “I do not support a ban on birth control, and neither will the Republican Party.” 

But recent moves by Republican state legislators and governors tell a different story and have added to the sense of urgency for reproductive-rights advocates and Democrats.  

In Arizona earlier this year, Republicans unanimously blocked legislation to protect the right to contraception. In Tennessee, House Republicans voted down a bill in committee that would have clarified that the state’s abortion ban does not threaten access to contraceptive care or fertility treatments. 

In Missouri, a comprehensive bill to support women’s health care — including bolstering access to contraception — was stalled for months because Republicans were falsely conflating birth control with abortion medication. 

According to the Guttmacher Institute, an abortion-rights research group, lawmakers in 27 states during this legislative session introduced more than 59 bills and proposed constitutional amendments that would codify the right to access contraception.  

Only the Democratically-controlled Virginia Legislature was able to pass legislation that would have codified the right to contraception in the state constitution.  

But Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) vetoed the bill, saying he supported the right to contraception but was concerned about the bill’s religious liberty implications. He also said in his veto message that the measure would have interfered with the rights of parents. 

Ziegler said Youngkin’s veto message highlights the GOP messaging problem. 

“They’re pro the right to contraception, but they’re really ambivalent about what that means,” she said.  

Democrats are seeking to capitalize on the broader issue of reproductive rights beyond abortion, and see Trump’s comments and the state-level fights on contraception as examples of just how potent the issue can be. 

“Contraception should be a nonnegotiable reproductive right, but Republican lawmakers in state legislatures are honing in on birth control as their latest target,” said Heather Williams, president of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee. 

“Contraception empowers Americans to choose whether and how to build their families — Republican legislators deserve no role in shaping these decisions,” she added. 

Major anti-abortion groups say they are neutral on birth control and maintain there’s no access problem. 

“Medicare and Medicaid cover it. Title X [the federal family planning program] focuses on it. And for years we’ve been sold the apparently false narrative that Planned Parenthood somehow had this under control. Can we get our almost $700 million back from Planned Parenthood if they dropped that ball?” said Kristi Hamrick, chief policy strategist with Students for Life of America. 

But access on the ground is a different story. 

“We don’t have broad access to the full range of contraceptive methods for everyone in this country, particularly not for people who are struggling to make ends meet,” said Rachel Fey, vice president of strategic policy at Power to Decide, an organization that advocates for sexual and reproductive choice. 

Title X, the federal grant program that supports family planning services to low-income women, has seen flat funding since fiscal 2014, making it unable to meet the growing demand for family planning services. 

In Texas, a federal judge ruled Title X clinics can’t provide contraception to teens without parental consent. The state also booted Planned Parenthood clinics from Medicaid, so low-income women have limited options.  

This year, Indiana required hospitals to offer long-term birth control access to new mothers on Medicaid. But it stripped IUDs from the law because Republicans considered the intrauterine devices to be abortive.  

There have been concerns over access to birth control well before the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision, but experts said the ruling has made it harder to separate the issue of contraception from the politics of abortion.   

“That’s really the dilemma for the GOP,” Ziegler said. “I think most Republicans would say they’re for contraception. But there are deeper disagreements about what contraception is.” 

Fey noted there’s a parallel between the erosion of abortion rights and what’s happening with contraception.  

“People understand all the nuances in which abortion exists in their lives and the lives of their loved ones. And I think the same is true of contraception,” she said, so it’s not an issue that needs much more “stoking.” 

“I think it is just that there is an acute threat right now. And you know, that threat is mirroring in many ways, how we got to where we are when it comes to abortion access in this country.”