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Kellyanne Conway Thinks Americans Will Believe Almost Anything

To help the GOP avoid voter backlash over abortion, she wants to rebrand the party as pro-contraception.

Kellyanne Conway smiles while seated.
Roy Rochlin/Getty Images
Kellyanne Conway on Fox News’s “Democracy 2022: Election Night” on November 8, 2022

It takes major audacity for Republican strategists to propose rebranding the GOP as pro-contraception. Yet that appears to be their plan for staving off electoral defeats over their anti-abortion successes. In December, some strategists began touting a survey from the consulting firm of onetime Trump staffer Kellyanne Conway, asking likely voters their views on abortion and birth control. The findings weren’t surprising: Most people said they support making birth control more accessible, including Republicans. But this group of strategists, which includes Conway along with a lobbyist who once was chief of staff to Representative Tom DeLay and the head of the conservative group Independent Women’s Voice, claims this will help them convince Republican congressional candidates to campaign on contraception because it may help them hold onto their seats. Otherwise, as Politico described the group’s talking points to Republican candidates, they “risk losing voters and confirming arguments from the left that the party that outlawed abortion in much of the country is coming next for contraception.”

To those who remember anything about the past decade or two in American politics, this is of course absurd. On the heels of the Dobbs decision overturning the right to abortion in 2022, 195 Republican congressional representatives voted against a bill establishing the right to contraception, including birth control pills and condoms. This is the party that put judges like Clarence Thomas on the Supreme Court, that used Dobbs to promote overturning Supreme Court precedent on the right to birth control—an argument that the Arizona Republican Blake Masters, now running for Senate, has echoed. Republicans have lied about the effectiveness and safety of contraception. They have pushed federally funded HIV prevention programs to promote abstinence over condoms. Of course, Republicans don’t like it when you point to this record. When called out during the 2016 presidential primary on his opposition to reproductive health programs, Ted Cruz accused the Democrats of inventing “condom police” just to scare people. “Back in my day, they used Bayer aspirin for contraceptives,” a major Republican donor tried to joke in 2012. “The gals put it between their knees, and it wasn’t that costly.” But this new, improbable pro-contraception strategy isn’t just another punch line. The whole charade is a depressing but useful illustration of how far right the United States has slid on reproductive freedom. How grim, that we are to welcome as a moderate, for example, a Republican candidate who opposes outlawing the morning-after pill.

How exactly Conway would rebrand the GOP as pro-contraception when Republicans are actively working to stigmatize and criminalize birth control as tantamount to abortion is a bit of a mystery. The reason Republicans’ messaging on contraception risks “confirming” that they want to ban it is because they have already confirmed this. Republicans are absolutely coming for birth control. They already are. And it’s anti-abortion groups who are backing them.

From a purely public relations perspective, it’s understandable that some Republicans would decide to emphasize the popular support for birth control, even among Republicans who oppose abortion. In a FiveThirtyEight/Ipsos poll conducted in the weeks after the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs, 77 percent of respondents said birth control pills should be legal in all cases, along with 51 percent supporting emergency contraception in all cases. Republican respondents’ support for contraception was a bit lower, but still, a majority of them wanted contraception to remain legal in all or most cases.

But suggesting that candidates can rebrand like this ignores the fact that the Republican Party shows no signs of breaking with the anti-abortion groups who have set their policy agenda. These groups distinguish less and less these days between banning contraception and banning abortion. Look to “Project 2025,” the presidential transition plan for the next conservative president, led by the Heritage Foundation, with partners including Alliance Defending Freedom (which argued the Dobbs case as well as bringing numerous anti-LGBTQ discrimination cases), America First Legal (a Trump-backed project led by his onetime adviser Stephen Miller), and groups such as ALEC, FreedomWorks, Moms for Liberty, and Turning Point USA. Project 2025’s day-one policy agenda includes directing Congress to make drastic changes to Title X, the federal family planning program operating since 1970 to make contraception accessible, particularly to uninsured people and people without other health care access. Seventy percent of Title X patients are earning an income below the federal poverty level, The 19th recently reported; for two-thirds of Title X patients, that will be their only health care that year. Trump imposed a gag rule on Title X, which banned Title X–funded programs from discussing abortion with patients, including with patients who specifically asked for information about abortion. This led Planned Parenthood and seven states to withdraw from Title X. Project 2025 seeks to restore and expand what Trump did to undermine Title X, such as forcing providers to promote marriage to their patients seeking contraception and making funding contingent on providers offering counseling to patients that only addresses how to continue a pregnancy to term or adoption.

In the right-wing worldview, the only appropriate way to promote contraception is to tie access to contraception to promoting marriage and pregnancy. But Project 2025 also seeks to restrict contraception in general, deeming the one-pill prescription-only emergency contraceptive Ella a “potential abortifacient,” and claiming it is a “close cousin” to mifepristone, one of the pills used in medication abortion. This is misleading, since Ella, like Plan B, inhibits ovulation, which prevents pregnancy; mifepristone, by contrast, terminates pregnancy. Accurate medical information however is not the purpose of such a program; rather, using the fig leaf of contraception access, these programs gag health care providers and push misinformation, stigmatizing contraception and abortion. Warping “contraception access” in this way ultimately restricts access: According to Guttmacher, the Trump gag rule reduced Title X services nationally by about 46 percent, leading to potentially 1.6 million fewer women receiving contraception services, if they could not get services elsewhere.

Conway et al.’s effort to push Republicans to message contraception access has been building for some time. In August, Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley floated pro-contraception rhetoric in the Republican primary debate, as a way to evade discussion of abortion. Journalist Sarah Posner, who has long covered the right, called this “a transparent ploy to hoodwink voters,” one that should not be trusted. “The recent history of the GOP and its unbreakable bond with the Christian right,” she continued, “shows that the party has only grown more extreme on both abortion and contraception.” About a year ago, she noted, the Republican Governor Kim Reynolds of Iowa also garnered attention from Politico for her support for making birth control pills available over the counter, part of what it said some Republicans had dubbed the “new pro-life agenda.” Two Washington Post columnists, one anti-abortion and one pro-abortion rights, repeated the phrase in September (along with “a pro-family agenda”), saying it was something that even those who disagree on abortion can support.

But the idea that there’s a broad base of Republicans who would celebrate the end of Roe yet hail wider contraception access is a fantasy about a moderate party that no longer exists, if indeed it ever did: It’s worth noting that for all the good press, Governor Reynolds’s contraception access bill failed. And her support for the bill was always strategic: When speaking to the top Christian rights group in her state at an event celebrating the end of Roe, for example, Reynolds bragged about the six-week abortion ban she supported, but not her contraception bill, which this group opposed.

Deceptive contraception-access policies backed by anti-abortion groups and Republicans have been building since long before the Trump administration, and any Republican president following the agenda set forth by leading conservative groups would continue and accelerate this trend. What good is “supporting contraception” when the larger political project is built on making contraception unavailable, pushing misinformation about contraception, and criminalizing an ever-increasing number of drugs and procedures? Republicans are counting on the media, donors, and supporters sticking to the approved messaging on this—that the party supports the use of contraceptives—and ignoring the people who suffer as a result of their actual policies. Win or lose an election, what they want is what the right has long desired: to leverage sex as a punitive force to exercise power over others and to reduce sex to a set of consequences and risks that they can dole out but always evade themselves.