Going into midterm election season, it looks like Democrats are eager to embrace the issue of contraception to appeal to female voters yet again. Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) and fellow Senate Democrats introduced a bill on the last day of the most recent congressional session that would require hospitals receiving federal funding to improve education on the availability of emergency contraception and to offer it to sexual assault survivors.
As Rewire‘s Emily Crockett notes, Murray has “introduced the same basic bill every year for over a decade.” This time, though, there was more of a clear effort to publicize the proposed legislation; the backers waited five days “once some of the smoke had cleared from the end of session … to publicize the bill and hold a ‘twitterstorm’ on it with the hashtag #ECinER.”
Obviously, a lot of this is an effort to harness renewed interest in the contraception issue to help push the bill into law. Realistically speaking, though, it’s also plain old political gamesmanship: an effort to remind female voters that Democrats have been pushing for greater contraception access and Republicans, when they pay attention to the issue at all, have generally been in favor of restricting it, usually by slashing funding for family planning clinics and opposing mandatory insurance coverage of contraception. It’s a strategy that has been paying off for Democrats since 2012, when Sandra Fluke, who became famous by speaking out for contraception access, had a prime speaking spot at the Democratic National Convention—so it’s no big surprise that they’re returning to that well frequently and drinking deeply.
If you take a step back from the situation, it’s actually deeply weird that the Republicans have it in their power to defuse the entire contraception debate, but for some reason, they just won’t take it. All they need to do is stop battling the Obama administration, and Democrats in general, on the issue. Stop supporting lawsuits by sexist employers who don’t want contraception coverage in their health-care plans. When asked about it, simply shrug and say that you believe all people should be equal under the law, regardless of religious belief. Stop looking for ways to take money from family planning clinics and give it to anti-choice crisis pregnancy centers. If they really want to defuse the situation, back Murray’s bill to make emergency contraception mandatory in hospitals.
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Instead, all they seem to offer in response is a defensive crouch: weak attempts to claim that “Democrats are sexist, too!” and an insinuation that it’s dirty pool for Democrats to use the phrase “war on women.” Even the supposed counter-offer Republicans are giving women—weighing in favor of over-the-counter birth control pills—is more of an attempt to deflect than a sincere offer to improve women’s health care. After all, none of the people offering their “support” for OTC birth control pills has the power to actually make it happen, since only the FDA can authorize drugs for OTC sales.
If Republicans put some actual distance between themselves and the anti-contraception fanatics, they really could derail the “war on women” narrative that Democrats are using so effectively against them. (It would probably help to stop filibustering efforts to make it slightly easier to enforce laws that already exist to protect equal pay.)
Sadly, it’s not like they would have to give up the war on reproductive rights entirely. Enough Americans are convinced that opposition to abortion is rooted in a sincere concern for “life”—even if they disagree—that you can be anti-abortion and still effectively duck accusations of being anti-woman. But contraception is just a bridge too far, and Republicans are mistaken if they think they can somehow parse the issue to continue chipping away at contraception access without paying a political penalty for it.
Obviously, the reason Republican politicians don’t do this is not because they’re all secret Quiverfulls that think contraception is a sin, something that can be easily guessed given that so few of them have households that spill over with a dozen or more children. No, the reason is that they’ve become incredibly dependent, as a party, on the votes of the religious right and are afraid of angering them. Realizing that they have Republicans by the collar, religious conservatives are rapidly escalating their demands, seeing how far they can push the anti-choice agenda.
But here’s the thing that Republicans would do well to understand: Those on the religious right are never going to stop raising the bar they want politicians to jump over. That has become obvious in the recent court battles over contraception. Once the right secured nonprofits’ ability to not provide access to health plans that directly cover it, they pushed for that to be extended to corporations. Now that they’ve achieved that, they’re pushing for the entitlement to block employees from getting contraception coverage elsewhere. Apparently, the religious right has its eye on the prize: making contraception as hard to obtain as an abortion is now. As long as Republicans roll over for each new demand, those demands will keep coming. And the “war on women” narrative will still have salience.
That’s why the smart thing to do would be to just stop pushing the anti-choice movement’s agenda on contraception, right now, and start working with Democrats to actually make contraception access easier. The odds that Republicans are going to lose votes by drawing a line in the sand with their more radical followers are very low. Anti-choicers were happy to vote for Republicans when all they could get out of them were attacks on abortion and not on contraception, and even if they grouse a little about being told to settle down, it’s not like they’re going to stop showing support for them at the ballot. I suspect, however, that it’s going to take Republicans a couple more election cycles before they figure this bit of common sense advice out for themselves.