Senate Republicans block bill to recognize legal right to contraception

<span>A patient prepares to take mifepristone at a clinic in Carbondale, Illinois, in 2023.</span><span>Photograph: Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters</span>
A patient prepares to take mifepristone at a clinic in Carbondale, Illinois, in 2023.Photograph: Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters

Senate Republicans on Wednesday blocked a bill that would have recognized a legal right to contraception, weeks after Donald Trump made – and quickly walked back – comments indicating he was willing to restrict access to birth control.

As expected, the Right to Contraception act fell short of garnering the 60 votes Senate Democrats needed to advance the bill. Before the vote, Democrats in effect acknowledged that they were daring Republicans to go on the record opposing the right to something that almost all American women use at some point in their lifetime.

“Senate Republicans just went on the record saying they do NOT support access to contraception,” the Democratic US senator for Washington state, Patty Murray, posted on X after the vote. “Yes, you read that right.”

Related: Texas supreme court rejects challenge to abortion ban over medical exceptions

Republicans argued that the legislation was unnecessary because, they say, contraceptives are not at political risk. In a Senate speech Wednesday, the Republican Iowa senator Joni Ernst accused Democrats of “fear-mongering in the name of politics”.

Several Republican senators, including Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Katie Britt of Alabama, JD Vance of Ohio and Mitt Romney of Utah, did not vote. Republicans Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, who have previously broken with their party to support abortion rights, voted in favor of the Right to Contraception act.

The Wednesday vote was part of an offensive broadside by Democrats to spotlight their work around reproductive rights, a vital issue in the upcoming 2024 elections, nearly two years after the US supreme court overturned Roe v Wade, including a sweeping package of legislation.

Trump backtracked on comments in a May interview that he was “looking at” restricting access to contraceptives, claiming on Truth Social that his own words were “a Democrat-fabricated lie”. Almost 90% of voters say Americans should have the right to make decisions about contraception without government interference, according to recent polling from the progressive firm Impact Research.

Efforts to codify the legal right to contraception largely stalled in 2024. So far this year, legislators in at least 27 states have introduced more than 50 bills and proposed constitutional amendments to protect the right to contraception, according to the Guttmacher Institute, which tracks and supports reproductive rights. But only one of those states, Virginia, passed that legislation and handed it off to the governor’s mansion. Glenn Youngkin, the Republican governor, vetoed it.

Redefining abortion

Anti-abortion beliefs are responsible for much of the opposition to birth-control protections.

“You won’t find a lot of Republicans who say they oppose birth control. You will find Republicans who don’t want right-to-contraception bills,” said Mary Ziegler, a University of California, Davis law professor who studies the legal history of reproduction. “The reasons for that are complicated. But probably the most important is that a lot of Republicans think that common contraceptives are abortifacients.”

The anti-abortion movement has quietly worked to redefine the meaning of “abortifacient”, or drugs that induce abortions, for years. In 2014, the US supreme court permitted Hobby Lobby, a Christian-owned chain of craft stores, to avoid covering their employees’ morning-after pills and intrauterine devices (IUDs) because their religious beliefs deemed them abortifacients – even though scientists disagree. Morning-after pills and IUDs can prevent pregnancy through a variety of mechanisms, but they ultimately can only keep pregnancies from starting, not disrupt existing ones.

Project 2025, a playbook written for a potential second Trump administration by the influential conservative thinktank the Heritage Foundation, recommends that the federal government drop a requirement that insurers cover Ella, an emergency contraceptive pill, which it deems an “abortifacient”. Meanwhile, the prominent anti-abortion group Students for Life lists birth-control pills, IUDs and several other forms of hormonal birth control as “abortifacients” on its website.

Ziegler said abortion opponents could even use existing abortion bans to outlaw contraception. After Roe fell, three states – Georgia, Utah and Oklahoma – changed their legal definitions of “abortion” to remove language that protected contraception, according to a draft of a forthcoming paper by Greer Donley, an associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, and law student Caroline Kelly.

“This is no longer a fringe, side issue for a lot of these groups,” Ziegler said of redefining abortion. “It’s a central plank of what they’re trying to do.”

Project 2025 also recommends that the federal government require insurers to cover “fertility awareness–based” birth-control methods. These non-hormonal methods often involve avoiding sex or using condoms on certain days of the month, and tend to be between 75% and 88% effective at preventing pregnancy, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. IUDs are more than 99% effective.

In 2024, legislators in five states introduced bills that specifically sought to restrict minors’ ability to access contraception, such as by mandating that physicians tell minor patients’ parents about their birth-control prescriptions. None of these bills advanced far in their state legislatures.

But in one case, litigation has succeeded where legislation has faltered. In March, the US court of appeals for the fifth circuit upheld a ruling that found Texas providers in the federal Title X network, the nation’s largest family-planning program, must obtain parental consent before they can dispense birth control to minors. Title X dates back to the 1970s and aims to provide free or subsidized contraception, STD screenings and other family-planning services to people regardless of age.

Trump’s first presidency took an axe to family-planning funding by writing new rules that forced almost one-third of clinics that received grants funding under Title X to leave the program. That left more than 1.5 million people without access to Title X-funded care, including its contraception services.

When Joe Biden won the White House, he rolled back Trump’s changes to Title X. But Project 2025 suggests the federal government revive them. Title X, the playbook adds, should be “reframed with a focus on better education around fertility awareness and holistic family planning”, while clinics it funds should stress the “importance of marriage”.

“I do feel like birth-control access is being chipped away at, much the same way that Roe was,” said Kelsey Grimes, senior counsel at the National Women’s Law Center. “But I think that people – and by people, I mean legislators and the general public to some degree – don’t really believe that birth control is threatened the same way.”