The GOP and birth control

Thom Tillis, in his Wednesday night debate with U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, joined a growing number of election-year Republicans in support of over-the-counter birth control pills without a prescription. That’s quite a turnaround for the N.C. House Speaker, who is challenging incumbent Hagan for her North Carolina U.S. Senate seat.

In the past, Tillis has been less than friendly towards N.C. women’s reproductive rights. He led efforts in the N.C. legislature to block funding for Planned Parenthood, which provides contraceptives as well as other health services. And he pushed through an unwise bill mandating that doctors show ultrasound images and describe the fetus in detail to women seeking abortions; a federal judge struck down the provision this year. He’s also said company health plans shouldn’t be required to cover birth control methods and that states should have the right to ban contraceptives. He also supports so-called “personhood amendments” that grant legal protections to fertilized human eggs, which the American College of Obstetrician and Gynecologists says could ban some forms of birth control.

Other Republican candidates now publicly favoring over-the-counter birth control pills without a prescription have expressed similar views. So, this change of heart has the pungent odor of politicking.

Indeed, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, in a 2012 newspaper column, gave fellow Republicans a blueprint on dealing with women’s reproductive issues. In his “The End of Birth-Control Politics,” he urged Republicans to stop getting in the middle of the “personal issue” of birth control, and said contraceptives should be available over the counter without a prescription.

It’s good that more Republicans are now favoring better access to birth control pills. They should extend that support to the many other contraceptive options. Some, like the IUD, are more effective than the pill.

For over-the-counter birth control to be truly accessible, insurance coverage should be required. Last year, the no-copay birth control benefit in the Affordable Care Act saved women $480 million, according to Planned Parenthood. “If birth control goes over the counter without [insurance] covering it,” said Dr. Nancy Stanwood, board chair of Physicians for Reproductive Health, “that actually hurts access.”

And she said doing away with the insurance guarantee for birth control pills could make other options like the IUD more expensive upfront.

In May, a national survey found that 71 percent of Americans believe insurers should be required to fully cover birth control pills and other contraceptives. More than a third of female respondents said they had struggled to afford birth control, and as a result, had used it inconsistently. Fifty-five percent of women 18-34 said they had struggled with the cost of birth control.

The need and desire for more accessible contraceptives is clear. Public policies should make them so. Politicians shouldn’t reduce the matter to political rhetoric on the campaign trail.