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Senate Republicans return to controversial contraception posture

Last fall, desperate GOP Senate candidates pushed a controversial contraception idea. Now, it's back, much to the chagrin of birth-control proponents.
Senatorial candidate U.S. Rep. Cory Gardner, (R-Colo.), left, gestures during a debate with incumbent U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, (D-Colo.), in Denver on Oct. 6, 2014. (Brennan Linsley/AP)
Senatorial candidate U.S. Rep. Cory Gardner, (R-Colo.), left, gestures during a debate with incumbent U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, (D-Colo.), in Denver on Oct. 6, 2014.
Last fall, Cory Gardner's Republican Senate campaign in Colorado found itself in a tough spot. The far-right candidate had spent much of his career trying to ban common forms of birth control -- which made him look like an extremist -- and Gardner continued to support a federal "personhood" policy, which he'd been caught lying about repeatedly.
In early September 2014, the Republican tried to fix his problem with a sort of Hail Mary pass: Gardner, despite years of service as a right-wing culture warrior, told Coloradans that he's actually a progressive champion of contraception access. To prove it, the conservative congressman vowed to introduce legislation to make birth control available over the counter without a prescription.
It was a brazen move, which was largely successful: Gardner won the race. As the Denver Post reported late last week, the GOP lawmaker followed through on the promise he made last fall.

The legislation encourages drug manufacturers of "routine-use contraceptives" to file an application with the Food and Drug Administration to sell their products over the counter. Gardner is sponsoring the Allowing Greater Access to Safe and Effective Contraception Act with Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H. Their bill also would repeal the Affordable Care Act's restriction on the use of health, medical and flexible savings accounts to purchase over-the-counter drugs without a prescription.

As longtime readers may recall from last fall, this may seem like a reasonable resolution to an ugly mess. If anti-contraception employers don't want to cover birth control as part of employees' health plan, and religiously affiliated employers have moral objections to insurers' paperwork, this over-the-counter approach makes the purchases more direct: if the FDA approves contraceptive medications for over-the-counter sales, it wouldn't matter what employers, insurers, or even physicians like or dislike.
But in practice, it's not quite so simple.
Note, for example, that the whole point of the Obama administration’s policy is to make contraception accessible and affordable: if birth control is available without a co-pay through Americans’ health care plan, consumers don’t have to worry about cost. And since pills can cost several hundred dollars a year, simply adopting an OTC model would leave millions of low-income Americans behind.
In other words, the Gardner solution tells poor women, “If you want birth control, go buy it. If you can't afford it, good luck.”
For that matter, just as a matter of basic human biology, an IUD can’t just be sold over the counter at a local drug store.
The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, a non-profit organization of women's health doctors, generally supports making contraception available over the counter, but the group nevertheless announced its opposition to the Gardner/Ayotte bill late last week.