Editorial: Of course Congress should pass a federal right to contraception

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May 20, 1916 - At Bolton Hall in Union Square, handing out pamphlets on birth control
More than half a century before the Supreme Court guaranteed the right to contraception, women handed out pamphlets on birth control in New York City's Union Square on May 20, 1916. (Bettmann Archive / Getty Images)

This week the U.S. House of Representatives is expected to take up the Right to Contraception Act. The bill, introduced by Rep. Kathy E. Manning, a Democrat from North Carolina, establishes a federal right to contraception — meaning women would have the right to use birth control and medical providers and pharmacies the right to provide it.

This bill would put into law a right that the Supreme Court addressed three times over the past half-century, when it granted married couples the freedom to use birth control in Griswold vs. Connecticut in 1965, then in two other cases when the right to contraception was extended to unmarried people and then to minors.

Contraception is recognized internationally as preventive healthcare and an essential tool for women to plan the course of their lives. But as we have learned in the last month, the conservative majority of the Supreme Court has no problem overturning precedents. Alarmingly, Justice Clarence Thomas, in his concurrence in the Dobbs vs. Jackson Women's Health Organization decision, urged the court to reexamine Griswold as well as the 2015 Obergefell decision granting same-sex couples the right to marry and the 2003 Lawrence decision that overturned laws prohibiting gay sex. Given that the court just overturned Roe vs. Wade, it's impossible to disregard the possibility that these other essential freedoms are now at risk.

Every single member of Congress should vote for the Right to Contraception Act. But if the squabbling over the bill in the Rules Committee on Monday is any indication, that won’t be the case. And that’s an outrage.

After Rep. Kim Schrier, a Democrat from Washington state and a physician, laid out the basics of the bill, she was met with a cavalcade of criticism and an attempt to slow-walk it by Republicans who complained they hadn't been asked to work on the bill with Democrats or given a chance to air their concerns. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a Republican, also from Washington state, insisted she supported access to contraception but said the bill was “vague and unclear,” didn’t protect women from forced sterilizations and was “a Trojan horse for more abortions,” among other things. Why, she asked, did the Democrats not come to her and say, “Let’s work on a bill together.”

Rep. Michael C. Burgess, a Republican from Texas and a doctor, echoed her. “Why haven’t we discussed this more?” he asked plaintively.

Maybe because the Democrats suspected the Republicans would try to slow the bill and drag it through half a dozen committee sessions where they could bicker over words until the bill was completely watered down.

Over and over, Schrier explained that the bill was simple and straightforward. “It is not about abortion. It’s about contraception,” she said, stating the obvious and adding that medication abortion pills are not prescribed as contraceptives. "It has nothing to do with sterilization. These are all red herrings. There is nothing confusing in the bill. It is a straightforward bill that says women, people, have a right to contraception, and doctors, healthcare providers, have a right to prescribe it. It doesn’t make anybody do anything,” Schrier said.

“I feel like this debate might be more appropriate to 1870 than it is to 2022,” said committee member Joe Morelle, a Democrat from New York. “I think most Americans would be aghast if they heard this conversation and thought there was a real chance this wouldn’t pass unanimously in the House of Representatives.”

Americans should be aghast. For more than half a century, they have enjoyed the right to buy and use birth control, and the freedom that contraceptives give women — and men — to decide if and when they want to become parents. But the conservative majority on the Supreme Court has demonstrated its willingness to upend precedent and roll back freedoms, and now nothing — not even birth control — can be taken for granted. Americans should take note of the Republicans who balked at supporting the bill and voted against it.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.