Republican opposition to birth control legislation could alienate voters, polls show

A month after the Supreme Court struck down abortion rights, the Democrats who then controlled the House pushed through legislation aimed at ensuring access to contraception nationwide. All but eight Republicans opposed it.

That vote two years ago, against legislation that would have protected the right to buy and use contraception without government restrictions, could come back to haunt Republicans in November as they seek to hold on to their slim majority at a time when real fears about reproductive rights threaten to drive away choose from them.

The risks they face became apparent last week, after the Alabama Supreme Court ruled that frozen embryos should be considered children. In response, a stampede of Republicans in Congress rushed to express their support for IVF treatment — even as they supported legislation that could severely restrict or even outlaw aspects of the procedure.

A new national poll by Americans for Contraception and obtained by The New York Times found that a majority of voters across the political spectrum believe their access to birth control is actively under threat, and 80 percent of voters said protecting access to contraception is “deeply important.” for them. Even among Republican voters, 72 percent said they had a favorable view of birth control.

When the voters were told that 195 Republicans in the House of Representatives voted against the Contraceptive Rights Act64 percent of them said they were less likely to support Republican candidates for Congress, according to the poll. And overall, the issue of protecting access to contraception increased voter preference for Democrats by nine points, giving them a 12-point advantage over Republicans, compared to three.

The survey found that access to birth control was particularly motivating for critical groups in the Democratic coalition, including black voters and young people, who are currently less enthusiastic about the election.

Pollsters said the change in overall party preference – known as the generic ballot – was noticeable, especially with such a wide margin.

“It’s really hard to move a generic ballot because the parties are branded,” said Molly Murphy, president of Impact Research, which conducted the poll. “You can move the numbers to named candidates, but people generally think they know the parties. It’s hard to change that perception.”

Although the poll, conducted in early February, did not include questions about IVF, its findings may help explain why so many Republicans have distanced themselves from a ballot record that promotes policies that could threaten such procedures.

Speaker Mike Johnson, for example, added his voice Friday night to the growing chorus of Republicans who say they support IVF treatments. But like many other House Republicans who now say they support unlimited IVF, Mr. Johnson is a co-sponsor of this Law on Life at Conceptionwhich would recognize the fertilized egg as a person with equal protection under the 14th Amendment.

The draft law states that the term “human being” includes “all stages of life, including the moment of conception” and does not include any exceptions for IVF and fertility treatments. If passed, it could severely limit IVF treatments, which usually involve the creation of several embryos, only one of which is implanted while the others are frozen to allow for subsequent attempts at successful implantation.

It’s the latest piece of the politically rocky terrain Republicans have had to navigate on reproductive health issues since the Supreme Court’s 2022 decision to overturn Roe v. Wade made the real threat to voters that other rights could be next. According to a new poll, three out of five voters who live in states where abortion is banned or restricted said they are concerned that contraception is next.

Ms. Murphy said Republicans’ reaction to the Alabama ruling showed they knew they had a political crisis on their hands.

“The reason they have to come out against this is because they know it’s not believable for voters to believe that it was just a court in Alabama, but more of a representation of what this whole party stands for,” Ms. Murphy said. “If they thought that this was an extraordinary decision by a southern outlaw court and that they didn’t have to say anything, they wouldn’t say anything.” This is damage control.”

It will be the second national election cycle in which Republicans face a bond of their own making as they try to reconcile their party’s hard-line policies on women’s health — based on allegiance to conservative religious doctrine — with a vast majority of the country that now views the issue differently.

According to the poll, a majority of voters support the Contraceptive Rights Act across party, race and gender lines. About 94 percent of Democrats support him, and 68 percent of Republican voters support him.

But when the proposal came before the House, Republicans balked. Many of them claimed to support contraception in practice, but saw the law as a gateway to enabling abortion. They argued that the bill’s definition of contraceptive could be interpreted to include abortion pills.

“The Republican Party has so underestimated the way the country has changed,” said Karen Finney, a longtime abortion rights activist. “This is part of the deal they made with the far-right conservatives who are adamant on these issues. There are Republicans who recognize the damage it could do to their base of support if they were modified in any direction.”

Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, a prominent anti-abortion group, opposed the Contraceptive Rights Act and graded lawmakers on their votes on the bill, downgrading those who supported it and rewarding those who opposed it.

Ms. Finney said that Democrats will also reach out to their political opponents, in their own way. “You’ll see ads in some places questioning whether the Republican Party is really saying ‘abstinence only,'” Ms. Finney said. “That’s not going to win the youth vote.”

Some embattled Republicans are already trying to change course on contraception after opposing the 2022 bill. Representative Mariannette Miller-Meeks, R-Iowa, led a group of Republican women in the House last year in sponsoring the Oral Contraception Act of 2023, legislation that presented as a way to expand access to birth control.

Democrats dismissed the bill — which was notably unopposed by Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America — as so narrow it would have little effect other than as an attempt to cover up House Republicans’ hostility to contraception. The bill, which Mr. Johnson has yet to bring to a vote, would order the Food and Drug Administration to issue guidelines for companies that want to make oral contraception available over the counter.

Only two pharmaceutical companies are actively working to offer birth control over the counter. One of them, Opill, was already approved for sale without a prescription before the law was introduced. Another, from Cadence Health, has been in the FDA application process for years and would not necessarily benefit from or need the guidance the law directs the agency to issue.

The new Americans for Contraception poll, conducted between February 2 and 8, included interviews with 1,800 voters.

In their conclusion, the pollsters offered some unequivocal advice to Democratic candidates ahead of the November election that could also serve as a strong note of caution to Republicans who oppose access to birth control.

“Don’t hesitate to talk about all forms of contraception, including IUDs and emergency contraception like Plan B,” they wrote. “Contraception is popular, and voters want to be the ones to decide which methods to use. They don’t differentiate between types of birth control, and neither should we.”

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