Republican candidates face a political conundrum over birth control, and they’re turning to Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal for the answer.
The party opposes the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that insurers cover birth control without a co-pay, saying it violates the religious freedom of employers who object to certain birth control methods. But candidates don’t want to be seen as standing between voters and access to birth control, a losing political proposition that feeds into Democrats’ “war on women” refrain.
Facing that exact problem, Jindal came up with an answer in 2012: Advocate that birth control be made available over the counter. That policy, its defenders say, would expand access to birth control without forcing people into conflicts of conscience.
In 2014, birth control is again a hot topic after the Supreme Court weakened Obamacare’s birth control mandate as part of the Hobby Lobby decision. And Republican candidates, including Rep. Cory Gardner in Colorado and Thom Tillis in North Carolina, have embraced the strategy amid attacks over their past stances on reproductive-health questions.
“This is really a way of neutralizing the issue, bringing [the campaign] back to real issues,” said GOP strategist Brian Walsh. “Republicans are focused on the economy: jobs, kitchen-table issues that families are dealing with.”
Whether the strategy will trump Democratic attacks remains to be seen—and whether over-the-counter birth control would deliver on its backers’ promises is a more complicated question—but even if it does work, not everyone in the Republican Party is on board.
Watching Republican candidates push over-the-counter birth control has left some social conservatives fuming.
Some on the Religious Right see the plan as backtracking on conservative ideals, and they worry the ambiguity of the proposal would make pills too easy to access.
Eliminating the doctor as a middleman and making birth control easy to obtain could result in its misuse, the critics say. Over-the-counter access to pills that could cause abortioins—intentionally or accidentally—would be their worst nightmare.
“There are several serious health complications with birth control pills,” said Jennifer Mason, communications director for Personhood USA. “Some pills could cause abortions; even aside from the moral implications, it’s reckless to make abortion and contraception pills available over the counter.”
The strategy has glazed over specifics of how the policy would actually work, which has some on the Religious Right worried about what exactly would be sold, and to whom.
“I’m not certain when they say birth control if they’re talking about abortifacients or not,” said Connie Mackie, president of the Family Research Council Action Pact. “If it’s not clear to some pro-lifers, that could turn them off.”
Mackie said that while Family Research Council does not generally take a position on contraceptives, the organization opposes the plan, largely out of concern that it could allow minors to easily obtain birth control without parental consent.
“Young girls need their parents’ and doctor’s guidance,” Mackie continued. “[The candidates] don’t trust that people want full control over their kids, and what they take. We don’t want some guys forcing a girl to go in and get [the contraceptives].”
Proponents of the strategy say the pills would only be available to adults, but that restriction would complicate their OTC standing and could be tricky to enforce.
The strategy is also resulting in political fracturing, with some on the Religious Right feeling they have been marginalized more broadly by their party.
“Republicans have historically had an uncanny knack for doing whatever it takes to lose their numbers in the polls; this would be the latest,” said Mackie. “It’s a political strategy. They should stop shopping around for things that appeal to liberals and stick to their core beliefs of life, courage, religious liberty, defense, and economic reform…. [But] they get these political advisers or contractors that come in and give the wrong advice.”
In Colorado, those who supported Gardner for his record of championing personhood policy—which would ban abortion and many forms of contraception—are not pleased with his seeming evolution, Mason said. Along with advocating for OTC birth control, the Senate candidate rescinded his support for the state personhood policy following its defeat by Colorado voters, but he remains a cosponsor of the federal legislation.
“[Gardner has] flip-flopped on issues and turned his back on the base that elected him,” Mason said. “He’s certainly not winning Democratic votes, and he’s alienating Republicans. It’s puzzling to us and politically stupid.”
The Republican candidates believe they’ve called Democrats’ bluff, forcing them to agree and drop their attacks, or oppose a proposal they say would increase access to and availability of contraception for women.
But while some Democrats and doctors groups do support the idea of over-the-counter access to birth control, they see it as a supplement to the ACA’s birth control coverage mandate, not a replacement.
“OTC availability of oral contraceptives will help more women get the contraceptives they need, which have long been proven safe enough to use without a prescription—especially emergency contraception,” Dr. John C. Jennings, president of the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, said in a statement.
“[However], over-the-counter access should not be used as a political tool by candidates or by elected officials.”
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