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Clashes Over Access to Birth Control Could Divide GOP’s Fragile House Majority

After the Supreme Court tossed “Roe,” 195 House Republicans voted against the Right to Contraception Act.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene walk to a press conference on May 12, 2022, in Washington, D.C.

The incoming GOP House majority is already showing signs of schism as far right members attempt to sabotage the long-expected rise of Republican leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy to the position of House speaker. Whoever prevails will have the unenviable job of balancing the thirst for culture war in the conspiracy-obsessed, MAGA wing of the GOP with the desire among members from swing states to eventually be reelected. Of all issues that could haunt a man like McCarthy, reproductive rights may prove to be one of the most divisive to GOP unity as the nation faces the aftermath of new statewide abortion bans.

In July, a few weeks after the Supreme Court threw out the constitutional right to abortion, House Democrats passed the Right to Contraception Act with a small handful of Republicans. The relatively brief legislation protects the rights of patients and medical providers to access contraceptives, which are broadly defined to include condoms, IUDs, birth control pills, Plan B, and other methods. Contraception is widely used and largely uncontroversial, and the bill says nothing about abortion, but a whopping 195 House Republicans voted against it anyway.

Unsurprisingly, poll after poll has shown that a vast majority of voters support the fundamental right to access contraception and other basics of reproductive health. In 2019, about 92 percent of Gallup respondents said the use of birth control is “morally acceptable.” However, more recent surveys and midterm election results suggest that many voters did not know House Republicans voted against a bill to codify contraceptive rights, and when voters did hear about it, Republicans with extreme views faced headwinds among women and swing voters.

House Republicans may raise vague “religious liberty” objections to the Right to Contraception Act, but their views are still way outside the mainstream and alarming to women even within their own party. A survey by Data for Progress taken a few weeks before the midterms found that two-thirds of voters thought Republicans made the wrong decision by voting against the bill, including 70 percent of women, 65 percent of independents and nearly half of all Republicans. Another 62 percent of all women, which includes Republicans, said they were less likely to vote for candidates who oppose the right to contraception.

Facing such polling, it’s unlikely the incoming House majority would take up legislation focused solely on contraception, but the issue could come up in committee hearings and debates over health care reform. Anti-abortion lawmakers on the right routinely introduce sweeping bans on abortion and contraception to please their anti-choice base, and Democrats are bound to raise alarms as more people are refused medical care and forced to flee the 13 red states where most abortions are now banned.

With abortion rights under attack, reproductive rights advocates — not to mention millions of people who have sex — have good reason to worry about the erosion of more rights in the wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. Indeed, politicians in Ohio, Florida, Louisiana, Missouri and Idaho have pushed legislation or policies aimed at restricting contraception since 2020, according to the bipartisan group Americans for Contraception.

In a now infamous opinion concurring with the decision that overturned Roe v. Wade and abortion rights for millions of people, Justice Clarence Thomas raised the idea of overturning the constitutional right to contraception — a right established in Griswold v. Connecticut in 1965. Thomas, a longtime skeptic of reproductive rights under the constitution, argued that the legal basis for Roe is also the basis for other rights, including the right to contraception, so the courts could “reconsider” the Griswold decision.

“Make no mistake, we have already heard the anti-abortion movement talk about limiting access, affordability and accessibility across states,” said Chris Fleming, co-founder of Americans for Contraception, in an email. “What the GOP fails to understand is that access to contraception is an issue that touches every American.”

Alarmed, Democrats and reproductive rights groups quickly moved to pass the Right to Contraception Act in the House, only to have the bill blocked by Republicans in the Senate. Republicans were tight-lipped about the bill on the campaign trail, and 55 percent of independents and 70 percent of Republicans reported hearing nothing about the legislation ahead of the midterms. Contraception advocates say the vote still came back to haunt the GOP.

Americans for Contraception says it spent more than $1 million running ads calling out Republican House members who voted against the bill across North Carolina and 12 congressional districts in other states. In North Carolina, a Democrat flipped a seat formerly held by anti-abortion extremist Rep. Ted Budd, who narrowly won an open Senate seat after voting against contraceptive rights. Voters rejected a handful of GOP incumbents who voted against contraceptive rights, including New Mexico Rep. Yvette Herrell, who co-sponsored legislation that opponents say would ban all abortions and some types of contraceptives, such as IUDs.

Such extreme legislation could once again arise from the combative far right of the new House majority, and Democrats will be eager to show the country the true face of the GOP before the 2024 presidential elections. Kevin McCarthy, on the other hand, may be hoping the issue simply doesn’t come up if he wins the speaker’s gavel.