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The GOP's contraception solution is no silver bullet

Anti-contraception Republicans believe they've stumbled upon a silver-bullet solution to their birth-control problem. They're mistaken.
Alena Yarmosky holds a sign outside the Supreme Court of the United States on March 25, 2014 in Washington, DC.
Alena Yarmosky holds a sign outside the Supreme Court of the United States on March 25, 2014 in Washington, DC.
The Supreme Court's Hobby Lobby ruling was a mixed blessing for far-right Republicans in Congress. On the one hand, the case turned out exactly as conservatives had hoped, thanks to the high court's five Republican appointees.
On the other hand, the decision also created a political headache in an election year: many GOP officeholders and candidates were stuck celebrating an unpopular ruling that makes it harder for many Americans to access birth control. It's the kind of position that was likely to make the gender gap even worse -- while boosting turnout from the Democratic base.
What anti-contraception Republicans needed was a way to thread the needle: a position that allows them to applaud the Hobby Lobby precedent while also maintaining some semblance of mainstream credibility. Sandhya Somashekhar highlighted their apparent solution.

Several Republican candidates for Senate have embraced an unorthodox issue as the midterm election approaches -- support for the over-the-counter sale of birth-control pills. [...] Their endorsement of easier, drugstore access to contraceptive medications marks a new front in an ongoing political battle over women -- one that has seen Democrats more often gain the upper hand. This issue could give GOP candidates a way to push back against the perception that their party holds outdated notions about women and sex.

Well, it "could," though the closer one looks at the Republican pitch, the more problematic it becomes.
It appears that Rep. Cory Gardner (R), running for the U.S. Senate in Colorado, was the first to roll out the over-the-counter solution, at least this year, hoping to push back against criticisms of his record as a far-right culture warrior, including repeated endorsements of anti-contraception "personhood" measures.
In the three months since his announcement, Gardner has apparently blazed a trail for his far-right brethren. Republican Thom Tillis, the U.S. Senate candidate in North Carolina, embraced the exact same idea. So did Rob Maness, a conservative U.S. Senate candidate in Louisiana. Before long, Virginia's Ed Gillespie and Minnesota's Mike McFadden, both Republican U.S. Senate candidates challenging Democratic incumbents, said they've embraced the policy, too.
At first blush, the idea might seem like a reasonable way out of a religio-political 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 OTC 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, there are real problems. For example, 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 solution Republicans came up with -- the way out of their contraception dilemma -- is to tell poor women, "Good luck; you're on your own."
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.
If far-right Republicans like Gardner and Tillis want to work on expanding access to contraception, great. If policymakers want to explore policies in which birth-control pills are both covered and readily available, terrific.
But as Amanda Marcotte noted back in June, when the GOP candidate in Colorado first started pushing this idea in earnest, "Look, in a country where not everyone has insurance coverage, I am in favor of over-the-counter birth control as an option for the uninsured. But completely replacing mandatory insurance coverage of contraception with an over-the-counter system would raise the costs for far too many women, which would end up reducing access to the pill, despite Gardner's newfound enthusiasm for it."