During the 2014 campaign, Republican Cory Gardner had to pivot from his long history as an anti-choice fanatic to appear more moderate on social issues—a necessary move to win the Colorado Senate race. The biggest obstacle was his long-standing support for a “personhood” law that would define life as beginning before pregnancy, when an egg is fertilized. (Medical experts agree that pregnancy begins at implantation.) Gardner claimed that his support for these bills was just about abortion, but many critics were skeptical, because abortion can only happen after a pregnancy begins, and personhood bills address the pre-pregnancy state. (Many anti-choice activists argue that the pill, emergency contraception, and the IUD are “abortion” and work by killing fertilized eggs. That’s not true, since hormonal methods suppress ovulation, and the IUD basically makes sperm unable to move.)
Gardner’s support for personhood laws, along with his hostility to the Affordable Care Act—including its requirement that insurance plans cover birth control—made the contraception question a vulnerable spot for a candidate running in a swing state such as Colorado. So Gardner tried an unusual move, arguing that he had an alternative to the ACA contraception coverage: make the pill over-the-counter. He didn’t address paying for it, as the ACA does, and Congress has no power to make drugs over-the-counter anyway. Still, it was enough to prop up Gardner’s claim that he wasn’t anti-contraception, helping him to beat Democrat Mark Udall.
Now Gardner has introduced a bill in the Senate that he claims is about making over-the-counter pills happen. As Gardner’s website explains, the bill would fast-track any Food and Drug Administration applications from drug companies for over-the-counter status for birth control pills; it would also allow insurance companies to cover over-the counter drugs.
In theory, it would be great if you could get OTC birth control pills and even have insurance cover it. But Gardner’s bill won’t do anything to make that happen—it’s just a feint. Even on the slim chance it passes, it doesn’t actually do anything. Drug companies that make the pill have never applied for OTC status, and there’s zero reason to think they will start now just for a minor fee waiver and a promise that their applications will be read promptly. And insurance companies likely wouldn’t pay for OTC pills if they don’t have to. This bill is a lot of posturing to create the illusion of a pro-contraception stance.
If Gardner actually wanted women to have contraception, he has plenty of better options. In his home state of Colorado, Republicans have waged war on a program that actually got contraception into women’s hands, a program so effective that it lowered the teen birthrate in the state by 40 percent over five years and saved the state $42.5 million in health care expenditures. The program offered free IUDs to low-income teenagers and women who wanted them, but Republicans in the state killed it, at least partly over concerns that girls would see this as permission to have sex. “I hear the stories of young girls who are engaged, very prematurely, in sexual activity, and I see firsthand the devastation that happens to them,” state Rep. Kathleen Conti argued. There is no evidence, by the way, that IUD access increases sexual activity in teenagers.