The hot new trend among Republican candidates is a surprising one, to say the least. As of now there are four GOP Senate contenders who have endorsed making birth control pills available over the counter.
All four — Cory Gardner in Colorado, Thom Tillis in North Carolina, Ed Gillespie in Virginia, and Mike McFadden in Minnesota — oppose abortion rights, and all four oppose the Affordable Care Act’s mandate that insurance policies pay for preventative care, including birth control, with no deductibles or co-pays. Yet these conservative Republicans are touting their deep commitment to easily available birth control. It’s likely that more Republicans will now be asked their position on OTC birth control, and some will embrace it to counter Dem criticism that they’re soldiers in a “war on women.”
The one who has advocated OTC birth control pills most aggressively is Gardner, in large part because he has been the target of relentless criticism from Democrats over his prior support of “personhood” measures granting full legal status to fertilized eggs, which would outlaw not only abortion but some forms of birth control as well. Here’s an ad in which Gardner practically pretends to be Gloria Steinem while a group of women nod and smile their approval.
Democrats telegraphed way back in April that they would make these attacks central in multiple Senate races. The fact that Republicans have come up with this new push-back suggests the Dem attacks may have been working.
The new-found embrace of OTC birth control pills might seem odd, even bizarre. But it makes more sense if you think about it as a fundamentally elitist position. The truth is that conservatives have long been much more concerned with restricting the reproductive choices available to poor and middle class women, while leaving wealthy women free to do pretty much as they please. And allowing birth control pills to be sold over the counter is perfectly in line with that history.
Let’s be clear that making birth control pills available over the counter would be a good thing — but only if insurance continued to pay for it. The cost of the pill can be as much as $600 a year, which is out of reach for many women. And we know that insurance companies seldom reimburse customers for OTC medications. The price of the medication might come down over time if it were sold over the counter, but in the meantime millions of women are dependent on their insurance plans to be able to afford it. By opposing the ACA, all these GOP candidates are putting themselves on record in opposition to requiring insurance companies to pay for any birth control in policies women themselves have bought. And that’s not to mention other forms of contraception, like IUDs, that require a doctor’s care and come with a significant up-front cost.
If you’re well-off, you can afford whatever kind of contraception you like whether your insurance company reimburses for it or not. And abortion restrictions don’t impose much of a burden on you either. The federal government bans Medicaid from paying for abortions, but that only affects poor women. A law mandating a 48-hour waiting period before getting an abortion may be an inconvenience for a wealthy woman, but it can make it all but impossible for a woman without means. In some states, it means taking (unpaid) time off work to travel to one of the state’s few abortion clinics, driving hundreds of miles, and paying for a hotel room.
While they’re going to use a lot of buzzwords like “access” and “choice,” the net effect of the policies these candidates are advocating would be to make birth control less available to women. And I think that’s why we haven’t seen any public blowback from the Christian right on this issue. The articles written about the new Republican enthusiasm for OTC birth control sometimes include a disapproving quote from a representative of the Catholic Church. But none of the bevy of organizations with the word “Family” in their name, which are so vehemently opposed to any kind of reproductive freedom for women, are loudly condemning these candidates. Nor are any of their Republican colleagues. So what does that tell you?