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Passion for the Pill

New York TimesSeptember 5, 2014Articles

Republican candidates are falling madly in love with contraception.

Who knew?

“I believe the pill ought to be available over the counter, round the clock, without a prescription — cheaper and easier, for you,” declares Colorado Senate candidate Cory Gardner in a new ad. He’s running against the Democratic incumbent, Mark Udall, in a close race.

Meanwhile, in North Carolina, during a Senate debate this week, Republican Thom Tillis announced that he, too, strongly believed “over-the-counter oral contraception should be available without a prescription.”

Tillis, a longtime politician, had never mentioned this big idea before. Until the debate, his most famous collision with women’s reproductive rights came when, as speaker of the State House, he allowed the Republican majority to add a last-minute amendment to a bill on motorcycle safety reducing access to abortions.

So big surprise from Thom Tillis. The same thing, more or less, has happened in Senate races in Virginia and Minnesota. Republicans in close elections suddenly turn into cheerleaders for over-the-counter birth control pills. A negative and suspicious mind might almost suspect they were following a script.

During one recent U.S. House debate in Colorado, the Republican incumbent, Mike Coffman, said in an answer to a moderator’s question that he was pro-life, then quickly added: “But I support a woman’s access to … to, uh …

“Um, certainly to this Hobby Lobby decision, to get …”

Painful moments of groping, flailing. What the heck do you call that stuff? Finally, a merciful member of the audience shouted: “Birth control.”

“Birth control!” cried Coffman with relief.

We’re entering another election season in which women’s issues loom large. (In North Carolina, one recent poll showed the gender gap between Tillis and his Democratic opponent, Senator Kay Hagan, is 32 percent.) The Republicans are trying to avoid the disastrous tone-deafness that cropped up two years ago when a leading Senate candidate suggested that a gal could not get pregnant if she was raped. This season, Democrats have been eagerly looking for similar fodder. So far, there’s been nothing quite that awful, although it’s pretty clear there are folks who still haven’t gotten with the program. Male invitees to an event for Florida Congressman Steve Southerland were told to “tell the misses not to wait up” because “the after-dinner whiskey and cigars will be smooth & the issues to discuss are many.”

A spokesman for Southerland indignantly told BuzzFeed, which first obtained the invitation, that “rather than focusing on nonsense stories,” reporters should be asking Southerland’s opponent about Obamacare. Truly, there is nothing that cannot be dismissed by bringing up the Affordable Care Act. Total miracle that the ex-governor of Virginia chose to defend himself against corruption charges by claiming his wife was a terrible person when he could just as easily have argued that taking money from a dietary supplement salesman was not nearly as bad as Obamacare.

I digress. About the pill. There was a time when the Republican Party championed family planning and access to contraception. But that was, you know, before disco. Now it’s a rare Republican candidate who can latch onto a major nomination without calling for an end to abortion rights and the defunding of Planned Parenthood. Many of them have also signed on to the personhood movement, which wants to provide legal rights to every fertilized egg in the country. This idea, with its potential impact on access to birth control, is so unpopular that it failed by a landslide in Mississippi.

All this can create problems for the women’s vote in general elections. In Colorado, the Democrats have pointed out endlessly that Cory Gardner supported personhood amendments to the State Constitution. After he seemed to be losing ground, Gardner said that when personhood came up in 2008 and 2010 he did not really understand the possible consequences. (“This was a bad idea driven by good intentions.”)

Now think about this for a minute. Imagine you’re a politician in a state that’s considering an amendment to the state constitution that is very controversial and all about women’s reproduction. Pretend it’s on the ballot the same time when you’re running for Congress. Pretend you’re very, very concerned with women’s access to contraception.

At what point would you say to yourself: “Wow, I wonder if this could have any impact on birth control?” Choose from the following:

A) First time the subject came up.

B) Not actually until a week before the election because it was a tough year and I had home repair issues to deal with.

C) Some undetermined point between the day the amendment failed by 3 to 1 and, um, right this minute.

Yes! In Gardner’s case the answer is C.

In every election, voters ask the candidates: “What have you done for me lately?” In this case, we might also want to know what they were doing last year.

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