Photo By Dennis Myers U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, seen here greeting Nevada constituents, has proposed legislation to reduce abortions by increasing access to birth control.

U.S. Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic Party floor leader, has launched a legislative anti-abortion initiative that has succeeded in putting distance between Republicans and their normal allies in the religious right.

Earlier this year Reid, an opponent of abortion, introduced legislation that he called the “Prevention First” bill. The measure, Senate Bill 20, seeks to reduce the number of abortions by increasing the availability of contraception. It has drawn fire by evangelicals without arousing the GOP.

“Whether you are pro-life or pro-choice, our amendment advances goals we should all share: reducing the number of unintended pregnancies, reducing the number of abortions and improving access to women’s health care,” Reid said in a prepared statement.

The bill would provide Medicare coverage for prescription contraceptives. Insurance policies that cover prescription drugs would be required to include birth control. Publicly funded hospitals would be required to provide the “morning after” pill, an important change for rape victims. Teen pregnancy programs would be enhanced, and public schools would be required to provide real contraceptive information, not “abstinence only” information. It also requires that information taught to students about birth control be “medically accurate and … include health benefits and failure rates.”

While congressional Republicans usually make common cause with the religious right on abortion issues, contraception is another matter. Birth control is less controversial and more popular with the public than abortion. In a CBS survey last November, only 16 percent of respondents told pollsters that they think pharmacists should be able to refuse to dispense birth control pills on religious grounds.

Some GOP senators are known to support the Reid bill’s approach, and neutrality from the others would be helpful to him. In the weeks after he introduced his bill, not one Republican senator came out in opposition. Some, such as Virginia’s John Warner and George Allen, passed up the chance to take a position when invited to by local newspapers in their states.

Religious groups, however, went after the Reid legislation. While some conservatives have scoffed at the idea that abortion opponents also oppose birth control, Reid’s bill exposed a broad swath of opposition to contraception.

The Family Research Council, a lobby group founded by religious political leader James Dobson that has labeled homosexuality as a “deathstyle” and lobbied for state prayer in schools, denounced Reid’s measure: “The bill specifically states that its goal is increased condom distribution coupled with more than doubling taxpayers’ monies to deceptively titled ‘family planning.’ The bill also bars any money going to organizations that promote abstinence-only programs. In addition, the bill forces hospitals that receive federal funds to provide the morning-after pill on demand.”

The publication Christianity Today described Reid’s bill as “Help us reduce unwanted pregnancies by helping us end pregnancies.” The magazine then said, “No thanks. If abortion-rights supporters want to join pro-life groups in areas that match both groups’ rhetoric, there’s already plenty on the table.”

During an online discussion of Reid’s approach sponsored by the Washington Monthly, a reader wrote that Reid’s bill fails to reflect Christian values: “I am a conservative Christian, and I believe birth control is wrong just as the Pope believes. To use birth control is a sin against Jesus, God, and the Bible. … If God didn’t want fornication to result in pregnancy, God would not have made woman as he did. Birth control is unnatural and violates the natural law.”

Meanwhile, more mainstream churches that support birth control have remained as silent on the issue as the Republicans. But other influential groups, such as medical professionals and the American Association of University Women, have endorsed the legislation.

After the bill was introduced on Jan. 24, some liberal groups quickly glommed onto it. The National Abortion Rights Action League was particularly aggressive, which allowed opponents to characterize the bill as a NARAL initiative. This tactic had a lot of success. In fact, NARAL has become so identified with the Reid bill that the New York Times in March used this sentence in a story: “NARAL is also pressing lawmakers who oppose abortion to sign on to its Prevention First Act.” (Italics added.)

NARAL attracted attention by taking out an ad in the conservative Weekly Standard to publish a letter inviting abortion opponents to make common cause with abortion supporters on positions that they had in common.

“For years, your groups and ours have waged one of the country’s most divisive political wars over a woman’s right to choose,” wrote NARAL President Nancy Keenan. “We will never resolve our differences on this basic question. But we should agree on an equally fundamental point: America would be a better country if no woman ever faced the difficult choices posed by an unintended pregnancy.” The letter pointed to the Reid bill as a starting place.

The strategy of trying to lure Republican support for the bill was used by many groups accustomed to dealing mostly with Democrats. When Reid tried attaching parts of the bill as an amendment to a budget bill, the National Women’s Political Caucus alerted its members to “be sure and call your Republican and Democratic Senators” to support the amendment.

To emphasize birth control over abortion, Reid issued a statement on June 7 drawing attention to that date as the 40th anniversary of Griswold vs. Connecticut, a benchmark U.S. Supreme Court privacy decision that overturned a state law that made birth control illegal.

Many observers were very taken with the idea of using birth control to bridge the partisan gap. Democratic columnist Stanley Grossman wrote, “Reid’s strategy is to attach S. 20 to every conceivable bill that goes through the Senate. He has already done it once, and the vote was 47-53 against, with all the nay votes coming from Republicans. Progressive voices in the media are beginning to notice and point out that Republicans consistently vote against efforts to reduce abortions in the U.S.!”

However, that raises questions of whether Reid introduced the bill in order to get legislation enacted or to have an issue to use against the GOP. There is a danger that Grossman’s approach will prevent anything from getting through Congress. If Republicans keep seeing their votes against Reid thrown in their faces, it could harden feelings and cause the party to close ranks against the Nevada senator. Some online sources have been taunting Senate GOP leader Bill Frist for failing to endorse the bill. “Why does Sen. Frist oppose birth control?” asks a Pro Choice Action posting. Whether there is ever a vote on Reid’s bill depends largely on Frist.

American Prospect writer Jodi Enda called the Reid legislation part of a liberal effort to take the abortion issue away from the right: “The solution du jour is a clever tactic to trap the anti-abortion side in a seeming contradiction. Join us, pro-choice leaders are saying, in reducing the need for abortions.”

“We’re going to define the debate on our grounds, not theirs,” Keenan told the New York Times.

Reid faces a couple handicaps. Last year, he sponsored similar legislation called the “Putting Prevention First” bill, and the two measures are being confused with each other. And his principal cosponsor is Sen. Hilary Clinton, a lightning rod for conservatives and some liberals.

Clinton in January made news when she urged liberals to reach out to anti-abortion forces and seek common ground: “The fact is that the best way to reduce the number of abortions is to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies in the first place.”

It was a stance she had also taken as first lady. She is, thus, a logical cosponsor for the bill, but her very name attracts opposition to the measure that it might not otherwise have received.

The bill has 15 other cosponsors, all of them Democrats. But some Republican senators, like Lincoln Chaffee of Rhode Island and Olympia Snowe of Maine, will likely vote for the bill if they get the chance. Last year’s version of the bill had Chafee as a co-sponsor.

The Reid bill has stirred a lot of discussion, both on- and off-line. One reader at a conservative blog argued, “The problem with this legislation is that I’m not sure it addresses a problem that actually exists. Are contraceptives that hard to get in this country? Even in my small, relatively rural community you can go down to the local health clinic and get condoms or birth control for free. I can’t imagine that the situation is all that different in major cities. How are they going to make access any easier than that?”

The Boston Globe published a long editorial, “Better choices,” that argued for “a new way to talk about abortion” and referenced the designation of an abortion supporter as cochair of the Republican National Committee and Reid’s measure as two encouraging signs “that both sides may yet reach across the abortion divide.”

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Dennis Myers

Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely...