What Is the Right to Contraception Bill, & Why Did the Senate Block It — Twice?

With the overturn of Roe v. Wade and the recent Alabama ruling on IVF, many Americans are justifiably worried about the state of reproductive rights. That extends all the way to birth control access, a right that has long been seen as basic — and was granted by the Supreme Court in 1967— but now seems to be the next target for anti-abortion groups. According to a recent survey, 1 in 5 adults believe contraception is under threat and less than half see it as “secure.”

In response to those fears — and to draw a line in the sand on an important election-year issue — Democrats recently reintroduced the Right to Contraception Act, designed to protect access to contraception. Per NBC News, Democrats pushed the bill forward to cement messaging before the election, but never believed Republicans would agree to pass the bill… and they were right. The bill failed after a 51-39 vote yesterday, falling short of the 60-vote threshold needed to defeat a filibuster.

What is the Right to Contraception Act?

This isn’t the first time the Right to Contraception Act has been discussed by lawmakers. The bill was originally introduced in the House in July 2022, weeks after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. The House passed it within a week, but the Senate never voted on the bill, stalling its progress.

The bill, which the Senate finally considered this week, would establish a nationwide, federally protected right to “obtain contraceptives and to voluntarily engage in contraception,” while also protecting health care providers who offer it. The bill also provides a definition of contraception as “any drug, device, or biological product intended for use in the prevention of pregnancy.” Had the bill passed into law, neither federal nor state governments would be able to pass laws that impede on the right to contraception.

While the right to contraception is currently protected under the 1965 Supreme Court decision on Griswold v. Connecticut, the fear among Democrats and many Americans is that the Court won’t necessarily uphold that decision if given the opportunity. In fact, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote that the court “should reconsider” cases like Griswold in his concurring opinion on Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health (the 2022 case that overturned Roe v. Wade).

“Today, we live in a country where not only tens of millions of women have been robbed of their reproductive freedoms — we also live in a country where tens of millions more worry about something as basic as birth control,” Schumer said on the Senate floor while discussing the Right to Contraception Act this week. “That’s utterly medieval. It’s sickening. It should never happen here in the United States, but because of Donald Trump and the hard right, it’s reality.”

Why didn’t the Right to Contraception Act pass?

The Right to Contraception Act did receive a majority approval, 51-39, but failed to garner enough votes to defeat a filibuster. Republican Senators Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine both voted with Democrats to support the bill, with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York switching his vote to “no” to allow him to bring the bill up again at a later date.

Republicans described the bill as unnecessary and for show. “This is a show vote. It’s not serious. It doesn’t mean anything,” said Senator John Cornyn of Texas, per NBC News. He also called the bill “a huge overreach” that “doesn’t make any exceptions for conscience” and “creates mandates.” He added, “Contraception, to my knowledge, is not illegal. And to suggest that somehow it’s in jeopardy, I think, should be embarrassing.

In several states, however, lawmakers have discussed or proposed restriction on birth control, especially IUDs and emergency contraception (aka Plan B). In Missouri, for example, lawmakers attempted to stop the state’s Medicaid from paying for those forms of birth control in 2021; the following year, an Idaho legislator said he would hold hearings on banning Plan B and IUDs. Lawmakers in Louisiana, Arkansas, and Michigan have had similar conversations, raising legitimate concerns around potential state contraception bans.

What does this mean for reproductive rights?

Though the Right to Contraception Act didn’t pass, birth control is still legal nationwide under the Supreme Court’s decision on Griswold. In addition, 14 states and Washington, D.C., also have laws protecting contraception access, per health policy and research organization KFF.

With reproductive rights expected to be a major issue in the upcoming presidential election, Democrats also hope that showing Republicans have opposed a bill to protect the right to contraception will serve them well in the polls. It may just be “messaging,” but words and votes can be powerful.

“If it’s a messaging bill, my message is: I support a woman’s access to contraception. Pretty simple,” said Senator Murkowski, one of two Republicans who voted in favor of the bill. “So if we’re going to play messaging, that’s my message.”

Before you go, read about these celebs who’ve shared their abortion experiences:

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