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How contraception became a political issue among Christians in the U.S.

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Pittsburgh TV station KDKA interviewed former President Donald Trump this past week.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Do you support any restrictions on a person's right to contraception?

DONALD TRUMP: Well, we're looking at that, and I'm going to have a policy on that very shortly. And I think it's something that you'll find interesting.

RASCOE: The blowback on Tuesday was immediate. And afterward on social media, Trump said, quote, "I do not support a ban on birth control, and neither will the Republican Party." But there is a part of the Trump coalition opposed to birth control, and for a look at that, we're joined by Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux, who has reported on this issue over the course of her career. She's now with the Associated Press. Thank you for being with us.

AMELIA THOMSON-DEVEAUX: Thanks so much for having me.

RASCOE: A decade ago, the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary wrote that contraception is problematic, not just because it might, in his view, be tantamount to abortion, but because regulating fertility at all is contrary to a pro-life ethos. Now, just a decade or two before that, that position would have been very unusual among Protestants. So what happened to spark this change?

THOMSON-DEVEAUX: So it's hard to talk about a formal theological stance on birth control for Protestants the way you would for the Catholic Church. That's the comparison that often gets made. But you know, Protestants are much more diffuse. There are lots of different denominations. So it's something that's more fluid. But what happened, I think, is that the issue of contraception became politicized for this group in part because of anxiety about the sexual revolution and how the widespread adoption of birth control took the focus off of marriage and having children.

RASCOE: So what you're saying is that for some evangelical Christians, the distinction between contraception and something that causes an abortion - it can be a very thin line or a line that they feel like it doesn't really make a difference.

THOMSON-DEVEAUX: Right. And the idea that sex can happen without consequences I think is another big part of this. You know, the idea that sex is an act that leads to the creation of children, and when you introduce birth control, people can just have sex without that potential outcome and that that leads to all kinds of bad cultural changes. I think this is complicated even for conservatives because the idea of birth control itself being available is still very popular. A 2022 poll from PRI found that 79% of Americans oppose laws that would restrict what kinds of birth control can be used to prevent pregnancy. Republicans were almost twice as likely as Democrats to be somewhat or strongly in favor of these laws, but still only 20% of Republicans fell into the category of favoring those laws. Gallop also found in 2022 that around 90% of Americans think birth control is morally acceptable, including 88% of conservatives. So the idea that there is something wrong with birth control as a category, the idea of planning pregnancy, preventing pregnancy using artificial means - that is not controversial among the vast majority of Americans. But also there is just a general concern right now on the left that the right to contraception is unstable, that it's something that could be threatened in the future. There's a KFF poll earlier this year where less than half of adults said the right to use contraception was secure. About one in five said that they thought it was a threatened right.

So it's not a huge share of Americans, but it's substantial, and then another third weren't sure if the right was threatened or secure. So Americans are very much in favor of birth control being generally available. But there are these edge cases that really complicate things. There's the discussion around religious exemptions and who should be required to pay for contraception under health insurance plans, and then just concern about what's going to happen to this right going forward.

RASCOE: Are there any movements or - you know, they may not represent the majority - that could affect contraception right now?

THOMSON-DEVEAUX: I think one of the things that will be interesting to watch is whether a future administration tries to use the Comstock Act, which is a 19th century law that regulated how materials related to abortion are distributed - if that's used by a future administration to restrict how medication abortion is distributed in the U.S. It's possible depending on how that is interpreted and executed that some of those forms of birth control that have been argued to cause abortion could also fall into that category. And so, you know, I think we'd have to see how it plays out. We see from the fact that Trump immediately walked his comments back that birth control itself is something that Americans very much do not want restricted. But we could see a kind of incremental or even accidental erosion of the access to certain kinds of contraception depending on how abortion is regulated going forward.

RASCOE: That's Amelia Thomson-Deveaux of the Associated Press. Thank you so much for joining us.

THOMSON-DEVEAUX: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
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