- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 9, 2014

A number of Republican candidates surmounted Democrats’ “war on women” attacks in this year’s campaigns by calling for birth control to be made available over the counter — but it’s unclear whether they’ll be able to follow through on those promises when the new Congress convenes next year.

In races from Virginia to Colorado, Republicans undercut Democratic talking points over last year’s Supreme Court decision on Obamacare and contraception by proposing that birth control be made more widely available, chiefly by having birth control pills be sold without a prescription.

But with the election in the books, that proposal has been markedly absent from the plans congressional leaders have laid out for the lame-duck session of Congress that begins next week, and for the new Congress to be sworn in in January.

“If they merely support an idea during a campaign but don’t implement it into law, voters will not take their positions seriously in 2016,” said Darrell West, director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution.

Among those to call for over-the-counter sales were Rep. Cory Gardner in Colorado, who won a seat in the Senate last week; North Carolina state House Speaker Thom Tillis, who also won a Senate seat and Virginia Del. Barbara Comstock, who won a high-profile House race in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. to succeed retiring Republican Rep. Frank Wolf.

None of them returned messages seeking comment on their contraceptive plans now that the election is over.

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Birth control also didn’t appear on the Obamacare agenda laid out by House Speaker John A. Boehner and presumptive Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who instead talked about votes to repeal parts of the Affordable Care Act ranging from the individual mandate to the medical device tax.

Earlier this year, Mr. McConnell and Sen. Kelly Ayotte, New Hampshire Republican, championed legislation that would ask the Food and Drug Administration to speed up its review of whether contraceptives could be made available safely to adults without a prescription.

Don Stewart, a spokesman for Mr. McConnell, said the Kentucky Republican has not laid out concrete plans to move the proposal forward — when the GOP will call the shots on the Senate floor — so he could not give a timeline for legislative moves on over-the-counter birth control.

“It’s something our members are interested in,” he added.

Advocacy groups like Planned Parenthood Action Fund will be monitoring their approach. The fund’s president, Cecile Richards, said shortly after the election that victorious GOP candidates “won as moderates, and the American people expect them to govern as moderates.”

Partisan bickering over a woman’s ability to afford contraceptives started with Obamacare, which mandated employers must insure 20 forms of birth control at no cost to employees as part of their company health plans.

Dozens of faith-based nonprofits and religiously devout business owners objected, and the Supreme Court last summer ruled closely-held corporations can refuse to cover forms of birth control they object to on moral grounds.

Democrats raised funds and campaigned enthusiastically against the so-called Hobby Lobby decision, arguing Republicans who championed it were standing in the way of woman’s right to make her own health decisions.

It was tactic that worked well in 2012, when Mr. Obama retook the White House and Democrats won seats in part because their GOP opponents made heavily criticized comments about women’s health issues.

While Democrats tried to roll back the Supreme Court’s decision, Republicans started to offer alternatives with months to go before the midterms.

Ms. Comstock, who defeated Democrat John Foust in Virginia’s 2nd District, championed over-the-counter contraception during the campaign. It’s a position she’s held since at least January 2013, when as a state delegate she asked then-Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to speed up review of OTC availability and “put this decision totally in the hands of adult women in the U.S.”

Mr. Gardner, a congressman, proposed over-the-counter birth control in an op-ed in The Denver Post in June, shortly before the Hobby Lobby ruling. He then told voters in TV ads that Sen. Mark Udall, his Democratic opponent who voted for Obamacare, wanted the government to stand between women and their health care choices.

The approach paid dividends, but some doubt the GOP Senate majority will turn campaign pledges into policy.

“The Hobby Lobby decision was what the GOP wanted — they were thrilled. So they are happy with the status quo,” said Holly Lynch, an expert on health policy and ethics at Harvard Law School. “Making things easier for women to access contraceptives seems highly unlikely — not to mention that OTC contraceptives isn’t really the best goal.”

She said the health law’s mandate offered a better solution because it made contraceptives “totally and completely free” for women through their insurance.

The National Right to Life Committee, which sided with Republicans during the Hobby Lobby fight over the mandate because they feared employers could one day be compelled to cover abortions, said it does not plan to wade into any birth control debates on Capitol Hill.

“We’ve never had a position or taken a position on contraceptives,” NRLC President Carol Tobias said.



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