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Why Republicans are pushing for over-the-counter birth control

Carly Fiorina wants to help women in the workplace — with over the counter birth control. (Jim Young/Reuters)
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Last week, Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina told a group of supporters, "it’s time for over-the-counter birth control, which will drive down prices and increase availability."

The American Medical Association and reproductive health advocates agree: A woman should be able to walk into a drug store and buy birth control without permission from her doctor. Now, the idea is being embraced by some conservatives, too.

Republican Sens. Cory Gardner of Colorado and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, for instance, recently introduced a bill that would make it easier for pharmaceuticals companies to apply for their birth control drugs to be available over the counter — a decision controlled by the Food and Drug Administration.

“Our legislation will help increase women’s access to safe and effective contraceptives," Ayotte said in a statement, "and further empower women to make their own health care decisions."

Fiorina, former chief executive of Hewlett Packard, adds an economic appeal to this argument. Unplanned kids make it harder for women to get ahead, she said — particularly single mothers: “They earn less and get fewer promotions."

The right's mounting attention on contraceptive access signifies something of a shift in conservative politics: Candidates are now bluntly discussing what some call “women’s issues,” a realm historically dominated by the left. And by embracing birth control, they are also bucking those in Republican party who support abstinence-only sex education.

If the birth control pill was both available over the counter and covered by insurance, the rate of accidental pregnancies could plummet by a quarter, according to a recent study in the journal Contraception.

The Republican-proposed bill on Capitol Hill, to the dismay of women’s health advocacy groups, does not guarantee insurers would continue to cover the cost, as most plans are now required to do under the Affordable Care Act. NARAL Pro-Choice America called the proposal "nothing but political pandering to trick women and families into thinking we are covered while dismantling one of the most critical gains in the Affordable Care Act."

Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington recently introduced a bill that would require insurance companies to cover the pill if it landed over-the-counter in drug stores. The measure, she said, would boost convenience for low-income women without adding any cost.

Without coverage, paying for monthly pills could reach $600 annually. “I believe strongly that women should be able to get the comprehensive health care they need, when they need it — without being charged extra, without asking permission, and without politicians interfering,” said Murray in a statement.

Some in the medical community, however, believe women's health may suffer if prescriptions are nixed. One concern is that because these drugs can increase the risk of life-threatening blood clots or depression, patients should talk to a doctor before they start taking the pills.

Ultimately, the FDA has the power to enable OTC birth control — and only after a pharmaceuticals company conducts the necessary research.

The clamoring on Capitol Hill may add momentum, especially as a Republican presidential candidate includes OTC birth control in her policy agenda.

When Fiorina called for easy-access birth control last week, the conservative crowd responded with a standing ovation.