What the Religious Right Thinks of Republicans’ New Birth Control Platform

A strategy intended to appeal to women voters has alienated members of the GOP.

WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 25: Margot Riphagen of New Orleans dresses as a birth control pill pack while dancing in front of the U.S. Supreme Court during oral arguments in Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby March 25, 2014 in Washington, DC. The court heard from lawyers on both sides of Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby, a case that may determine whether the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 allows a for-profit corporation to deny its employees the health coverage of contraceptives to which the employees are otherwise entitled by federal law, based on the religious objections of the corporation's owners. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
National Journal
Sophie Novack
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Sophie Novack
Sept. 24, 2014, 4:32 p.m.

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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