Discover more from Abortion, Every Day
The GOP’s Plan to Ban Birth Control (Part I)
Redefining Contraception as 'Abortion'
For years, feminists have warned that Republicans want to ban birth control. We’ve pointed to legal and cultural trends showing how contraception is in danger, only to be told again and again that we’re overreacting or being hysterical. Remember how well it turned out when our warnings about Roe were ignored?
This disbelief over the danger to contraception isn’t just run-of-the-mill misogyny—though that’s certainly part of it. Some people simply can’t comprehend why lawmakers who claim to be against abortion would prohibit birth control, which prevents unwanted pregnancies. They haven’t caught onto the fact that Republicans’ real end goal is a return to traditional gender roles, and that overturning Roe was simply a means to that end. After all, what better way to force women back into the kitchen than by ensuring they’re forever pregnant? It’s not a coincidence that Roe’s demise happened alongside social media campaigns about how great it is to be a housewife, and a sudden conservative interest in doing away with no-fault divorce.
Another reason people may have a hard time believing contraception is in jeopardy is because they think feminists are talking about a single law explicitly outlawing birth control. And those on the Right are all too happy to bolster that narrative in an attempt to make anyone bringing up contraception seem ridiculous: The president of Ohio Right to Life, Mike Gonidakis, for example, hit back at a state Democrat recently who warned of the danger to birth control by saying, “She can’t cite a piece of legislation that bans contraception…it’s fear-mongering.”
As we know from the way abortion rights were chipped away at for years, that’s really not how it happens. There’s no one law, no singular campaign that will do away with birth control all at once—and that’s what makes conservatives’ plan so incredibly dangerous. The slow and sly erosion of a longstanding right is much harder to spot than a single sweeping law. Either way, though, the result is the same: Death by a thousand cuts still kills you in the end.
But the biggest reason so many Americans don’t understand that birth control is in real, immediate danger is because conservatives have spent a tremendous amount of time, money and energy to keep their efforts under wraps. They have to: 99% of sexually active women have used contraception at some point in their lives, and voters are already furious about abortion bans. Explicitly opposing birth control would result in an unprecedented backlash.
Republicans can only ban contraception by actively fooling voters; and for decades, that’s exactly what they’ve been doing.
With abortion winning election after election, Republicans are getting more desperate—and more dangerous. They’re undermining democracy in order to keep Americans from having a say on the issue, and are forcing their increasingly regressive agenda through in any way possible. Conservatives also know that we’re completely overwhelmed—doing triage to reduce the harm abortion bans are causing. There is truly no better time for them to push through restrictions on contraception, hoping that their efforts go unnoticed in the chaos.
In continuing with the newsletter’s mission to shine a light on conservative strategy, Abortion, Every Day is launching an explainer series about the war on contraception. I’ll lay out, step-by-step, Republicans’ plan to ban birth control—from the legal and political attacks, to the insidious cultural campaigns spreading across social media and beyond.
The series will cover the way that lawmakers are funneling money to anti-abortion centers (aka crisis pregnancy centers) as a way to reduce contraception access across communities; how the anti-abortion movement is co-opting feminist rhetoric to convince young women that hormonal birth control is harmful; the increasing focus on ‘parental rights’ and how it could ban teens from accessing contraception; and, in today’s inaugural article, a tactic years in the making: redefining birth control as ‘abortion’.
I hope the series makes it easier to spot conservative strategies on contraception, and that it arms you all with the information you need to warn other people, as well. As always, if there’s anything you think I’m missing or should add to the series, hit me up in comments or by email.
Before you start reading, please remember: this work is only possible because of paying subscribers. So if you value Abortion, Every Day and its mission, please consider signing up for a paid subscription or recommending the newsletter to a friend. When it comes to independent feminist media, every little bit truly does make a difference:
One of the primary ways Republicans think that they’ll get away with banning birth control is by lying about what birth control actually is. Specifically, they’re trying to redefine common types of contraception—like hormonal birth control and IUDs—as ‘abortifacients’.
Redefining birth control as abortion not only makes it easier for lawmakers to prohibit contraception, it also gives them semantic cover: Conservatives never have to admit that they’re trying to ban birth control; they just claim they’re opposing abortion.
Students for Life, for example, one of the country’s most powerful anti-abortion groups, classifies IUDs, emergency contraception and every single kind of hormonal birth control—from the pill to patches—as ‘abortifacients’. The only forms of birth control they believe aren’t abortions are sterilization, condoms and other barrier methods.
So when the group says, as they do on their website, that they’ve made “no effort of any kind” to “limit birth control, which is defined as that which prevents pregnancy,” all they’re really saying is that they’re not trying to ban condoms or other barrier methods. Because remember: they’ve already established that they believe most forms of contraception are actually abortions. It’s a slick way of claiming that they’re not trying to ban birth control while they actively work to ban birth control.
Another powerful conservative organization, Concerned Women for America (CWA), released a ‘fact-sheet’ this year—Contraception v. Abortion—that claims to clear up the “confusion” around the difference between birth control and abortion. (Is anyone actually confused?) Instead of making an outright list like Students for Life does, CWA is less explicit: The group writes that pregnancy begins at the moment of fertilization—not when a fertilized egg implants in the uterus.
It’s a key distinction, because conservatives have spent years building the legal argument that emergency contraception and IUDs disrupt the implantation of a fertilized egg and are therefore abortifacients. (The science doesn’t bear that out, but even if it did, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists defines ‘fertilization’ as the first step in a series of events “that leads to pregnancy.”)
In 2014, for example, the retail chain Hobby Lobby—supported by Republican politicians and anti-abortion groups—argued that they shouldn’t have to cover employees’ contraception because IUDs and the morning after-pill end pregnancies. That’s not true, but the company still won their case before the Supreme Court.
That’s what’s so important to understand about this redefinition tactic: it isn’t only happening rhetorically or theoretically, but is being used to actively prohibit real women from obtaining birth control. I spoke to a woman in Georgia, for example, whose health insurance company denied her coverage for an IUD because they considered it a “sanctity of life” issue. Republicans in Colorado made the same argument about ‘abortifacients’ when they tried to end a program that gave out free IUDs, as did the Missouri GOP when they fought to prevent Medicaid from covering IUDs, arguing “it’s not birth control.”
Individual legislators are also casually inserting the lie into the public consciousness: During Amy Coney Barrett's Supreme Court confirmation hearings, for example, Texas Republican Ted Cruz said that the Affordable Care Act—which mandated coverage for contraception—was trying to force religious groups to “pay for abortion-inducing drugs.”
This where conservatives’ legal and cultural strategy intersect: Because again, they’re not just classifying contraception as abortion so it will be easier to ban—but so voters won’t be furious with them.
That’s also why anti-abortion groups and Republicans are focusing so heavily on restricting emergency contraception (also known as the morning-after pill) over other kinds of birth control; they know it’s a medication that people are already confused about. Emergency contraception prevents pregnancy, and abortion medication ends pregnancy—but most Americans don’t know the difference between the two.
In fact, a poll from KFF Health found that an incredible 73% of Americans believe that emergency contraception can end a pregnancy. Republicans and the anti-abortion movement are taking advantage of that widespread confusion.
Take the conservative response to the spate of college campuses installing emergency contraception-stocked vending machines. Anti-abortion groups can’t tell the truth—that they oppose helping students prevent unwanted pregnancies—so instead they conflate emergency contraception with abortion medication, and claim they simply oppose abortion.
In a June 2023 Washington Examiner article about the campus vending machines, for example, a representative from Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America said, “providing dangerous abortion pills on college campuses is reckless, puts women in grave danger, and is not the answer to an unplanned pregnancy.” Remember, the machines were dispensing the morning-after pill, not abortion medication. Activists know that, but are deliberately misinforming already-confused Americans.
Conservatives repeated this false talking point again and again, and the deliberately-confusing quotes worked: Within a few weeks, a Fox News headline warned readers that “Abortion-by-vending-machine is much worse than it sounds.”
It’s no wonder that so many Americans don’t understand the difference between abortion pills and emergency contraception—there’s an incredibly powerful, well-funded movement working to keep them ignorant.
But it’s not just emergency contraception that Republicans are working to conflate with abortion, but most forms of birth control. They just think emergency contraception is just the easiest one to start with.
What’s most disturbing is that Republican efforts to broaden the definition of ‘abortion’ while narrowing what ‘contraception’ is are working. Americans are confused, and the mainstream media is not doing enough to debunk Republican lies. In some cases, they’re actually bolstering them. In February, for example, ABC News reported that Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton was suing the Biden administration over “a rule requiring pharmacies to fill prescriptions for abortion pills.” That wasn’t true.
In fact, the guidance from the Department of Health and Human Services was simply a reminder to pharmacists that they can’t discriminate against someone based on their ability or perceived ability to get pregnant. So, for example, they can’t withhold arthritis medication from a woman just because the medication might be dangerous to a pregnancy.
By framing the guidance as “a radical abortion agenda” and claiming that the White House was trying to force pharmacists to dispense abortion medication in spite of state law, Paxton was doing something very deliberate. He was broadening the definition of abortion to include medication that might be dangerous to a pregnancy, or any pills that an extremist pharmacist might believe are abortifacients (like birth control pills or emergency contraception). And ABC News, along with other publications, mirrored that false claim and repeated his lie.
This is how we end up with birth control being banned—not all at once, but lawsuit by lawsuit, talking point by talking point. That slow and steady pace, the methodical and silent erosion of rights, also makes it easier for conservatives to slip in their extremism unnoticed.
Consider one of the arguments that the anti-abortion movements makes about IUDs and birth control pills: that the contraceptives are abortifacients because they make a uterus “inhospitable” for a fertilized egg. Human Life International, for example, says that the pill “transforms the endometrium from a welcoming, lush forest into a barren, sterile desert” causing a “silent abortion”; and that IUDs “irritate” the uterine lining “and make it inhospitable to the blastocyst…which is an abortifacient effect.”
If ‘abortion’ is your body simply being “inhospitable” to a fertilized egg or embryo, imagine how broadly that redefinition could be applied. If you don’t take prenatal vitamins, are you making your body inhospitable and therefore having a ‘silent abortion’? What about if you drink alcohol? Or strenuously exercise?
I’m not being hyperbolic: It was only in 2006 when the CDC released guidelines instructing all women of childbearing age—whether or not they were pregnant, and regardless of whether they had plans to be—to take folic acid supplements, not smoke, not “misuse” alcohol, maintain a healthy weight, refrain from drug use and avoid “high risk sexual behavior.” The idea was that anyone who had the ability to get pregnant should be making their body as hospitable as possible to a potential pregnancy.
All of which is to say: The things that may sound absurd or insane—the beliefs we think no one could possibly take seriously—have, in many cases, already been floated in the corridors of power. And for as much as conservatives claim that they have no interest in banning birth control, you’d be hard pressed to find a single one willing to protect or expand access.
When conservatives opposed the Right to Contraception Act last year, for example, they went straight to the conflation tactic: SBA Pro-Life America called the legislation “a ploy to impose abortion on demand.” Republican Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers said it was a “Trojan Horse for more abortions.” And Fox News claimed the legislation would allow “access to...abortion drugs.” (If they can’t argue that contraception causes abortion, they’ll claim it opens the door to abortion or is somehow a gateway drug—a strategy I’ll get into in another article in this series.)
If Republicans and anti-abortion groups wanted to curb unwanted pregnancies, they could. But that’s never been the point. And birth control has always been in their sights. They may not be able to ban it all at once, but by enshrining the notion of contraception as ‘abortion’, they get closer to that goal every day.
Support Abortion, Every Day by signing up for a paid subscription or recommending the newsletter to a friend: