Commentary Contraception

Republicans Dropped That Whole Over-the-Counter Birth Control Thing Really Quickly

Amanda Marcotte

Remember how a bunch of Republicans were enthusiastic about over-the-counter birth control before the election? Well, big surprise, all that enthusiasm has disappeared. There's a lesson in this when dealing with politicians making promises about health-care access.

Remember how a bunch of Republicans, right before the election, started to get really excited about how much they loved contraception and how they wanted to make it easier for women to get by making prescription birth control pills available over-the-counter? Don’t feel bad if you forgot. I did, and I wrote multiple pieces at the time explaining some of the logistical problems with this plan, as well as expressing skepticism about their sincerity in offering this as an actual solution to women’s birth control woes. The issue, which was getting so much glowing coverage in the months before November, fell off the radar so abruptly after Election Day that it was almost as if it never happened.

But I was reminded of it again this week when Sen. Thom Tillis—who made a big, honking fuss during the election about how he loved the pill so much he wanted to make it as easy as gum and batteries for women to buy—hired a legislative director named Katy Talento. Talento is not a fan of the birth control pill, which she has falsely claimed causes infertility and works by aborting pregnancies. Perhaps Tillis’ opposition to mandatory insurance coverage of birth control is not rooted in a love of the “free market,” as he claimed prior to the election, or else he wouldn’t be so cozy with people who just don’t want you to have access to the pill at all. Seems like his stance regarding contraception was simply a cynical ploy to hoodwink moderates into voting for him after all. (Tillis has released a statement on the matter directing members of the public to see his campaign statements for his views on birth control.)

On the off chance this was a one-time situation, I thought I’d follow up with some of the other Republicans who burnished their pro-woman bona fides by touting their supposed support for over-the-counter (OTC) birth control. Are they busy drafting bills to make this happen? Are they pressuring the FDA to work on it? Asking drug companies to apply for OTC status for birth control?

Ha, no. Cory Gardner, who edged Mark Udall out in a tight race to win a senate seat for Colorado by trumpeting, in part, his new-found love for hormonal contraception, has not shown an ounce of enthusiasm for the subject since the election returns came in. A Google search for public statements on the issue or legislative efforts starting from November 5, the day after Election Day, produces zip in the way of attempts to make those OTC birth control pills a reality. But he’s had plenty of time to co-sponsor multiple bills intended to repeal Obamacare, even though he and his fellow Republicans know that those bills would, if they ever passed, be immediately vetoed by President Obama. Priorities, I guess.

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Same story with Barbara Comstock, who won a congressional race in Virginia trying to downplay her opposition to reproductive health-care access by talking a big game about OTC birth control pills. That gusto has vanished into thin air since the election. Her legislative record shows zero interest or movement on this issue, though she too has co-sponsored go-nowhere legislation intended to repeal Obamacare.

I suspect if we check in with these folks a year from now, we’ll get the same results.

So what’s the point of this exercise, besides gloating about being right in our assessment of Republicans’ OTC birth control maneuver as a cynical strategy that would go nowhere? (Though that is its own reward.) This entire situation is indicative of a larger issue when it comes to Republicans and health-care access. Rather than give up on trying to undermine health care, they’ve instead decided to go with confusing the public about these issues.

The ruse about birth control captures the strategy perfectly: 1) Claim you don’t object to health-care access, but instead have an alternative to the current system. 2) Use that “alternative” to undermine the current system people rely on. 3) “Forget” to implement the alternative you promised.

This matters, because a similar situation is happening on a larger scale with the existence of Obamacare itself. The Supreme Court is going to hear yet another legal challenge to Obamacare at the beginning of March, and it’s widely believed that the court might be more open to destroying the health-care reform law if they believe there’s an alternative method to ensure millions of low-income Americans get the health-care coverage they need. Republicans are busy shoring up the argument that just such a replacement is coming down the pipeline, coughing up all sorts of ideas and even having big public shows of the supposed alternatives that they totally swear they have in the works.

It’s all just a feint, just as surely as the enthusiasm for making birth control over-the-counter was a feint. If the Supreme Court falls for this trick and hacks away at Obamacare in hopes of a different bill being passed soon, we can expect, with near-100 percent certainty, that legislators will forget the alternative just as swiftly as Thom Tillis, Barbara Comstock, and Cory Gardner forgot those exciting ideas about OTC birth control. It’s almost painful watching policy analysts carefully go over the GOP plan to replace Obamacare. All those man-hours, all that diligent work, criticizing a bill that was never really intended to be passed at all. It’s like going through the Potemkin villages and kicking the walls to see how sturdy they are. It doesn’t matter—no one was ever meant to sleep in them.

What all this demonstrates is that when it comes to Republicans and health-care policy, it is critical to judge them not on what they say, but what they do. You can get a much better idea of a politician’s chances at supporting improved health-care access, including to contraception, by looking at their legislative record and political associations than a few facile comments made when the pressure is high. Indeed, this should be a general rule of coverage. It’s particularly important when it comes to Republicans and health, though, given their poor track record of actually following through on promises to make it easier for people to get the medical services they need.

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