It’s time to call bullshit on the GOP’s embrace of over-the-counter birth control. Several Republican candidates, under fire for radical positions on women’s health, have recently adopted the idea in a naked attempt to woo female voters. These politicians say they’re all in favor of access to contraception. But sudden calls for the pill to be available without a prescription do not signal a real shift in conservative attitudes toward reproductive rights. They simply mask tired opposition to the Affordable Care Act’s mandate that insurers cover birth control.
The list of Republicans that have endorsed the idea includes Senate nominees Cory Gardner (Colorado), Tom Tillis (North Carolina), Ed Gillespie (Virginia) and Mike McFadden (Minnesota). Republicans running for the House have also spoken up for over-the-counter access.
None of these people were championing the proposal before their campaigns. Instead, they were working to limit women’s access to abortion and other healthcare. Gardner, who started the over-the-counter trend in June with an op-ed in The Denver Post, has campaigned for “personhood” measures that would outlaw abortion and possibly some forms of birth control since at least 2006. Early in his campaign Gardner denounced the state-level personhood legislation he’d supported—yet he’s still a co-sponsor on a federal bill that would have the same impact. Gardner has resorted to claiming that bill doesn’t exist.
Then there’s Tom Tillis, who endorsed over-the-counter birth control during a debate with Democratic incumbent Kay Hagan in September. As the top Republican in the state House, Tillis shepherded extreme anti-choice legislation in a decisively dishonest manner, inserting restrictions into unrelated bills like one ostensibly about motorcycle safety. Tillis, like other Republicans trumpeting their support for over-the-counter contraception, opposes not only the ACA’s birth control mandate but the healthcare law in general, which has a range of other benefits for women.
The latest candidate to pivot to contraception when confronted about her record is Joni Ernst, a Senate hopeful in Iowa who supports a personhood amendment as well as criminal prosecution of doctors who provide abortions. “When it does come to a woman’s access to contraception, I will always stand with our women on affordable access to contraception,” she said. Her campaign did not respond to a request to clarify which specific policies she supports that would increase affordability and accessibility.
In case anyone is confused: while affordable contraception does dramatically reduce rates of unintended pregnancy, it does not solve the problems created by cutting off women’s access to abortion services. In fact, attempts to block abortion access—for example, by cutting funds for clinics like Planned Parenthood that provide a range of services besides abortion—can have the perverse effect of making it more difficult for women to get other healthcare, birth control included.