Every once in a while a political event comes along and clarifies things. Since much of politics is a frustrating stew of dodgy rhetoric and ambiguous bombast—“hope and change” this, “the America millions of Americans believe in” that—it is refreshing when we are treated to the rare moment of candor from the partisan realm. Would that it were the norm instead of an anomaly.
Such is the case regarding the recent Republican push to move oral contraceptives over the counter: a number of GOP lawmakers and candidates have begun to advocate for removing the doctor-prescription middleman, allowing women to purchase hormonal contraceptives as easily as they would aspirin or supplements. The justifications are myriad: the pill has a safe track record, women are perfectly capable of making this decision without the paternalism of a doctor’s prescription pad, and over-the-counter birth control would be cheaper. Being a health-nut anti-synthetic Catholic natural foodie freak, I have some strong opinions about birth control, but they are, in the end, my own opinions, religious or otherwise; there is no justifiable reason for me or for anyone to impede a woman’s access to something like the Pill. Making it available over the counter is, in a word, “feminist,” which means that anyone with “feminist” tendencies should probably get behind it.
Well. The reaction from liberals has been a bit counterintuitive: as Federalist contributor Scott Lincicome has observed, the GOP’s effort “seems to have turned the left into babbling idiots.” Instead of getting behind the notion that women should be in charge of their own medical decisions, a great many Progressives and feminists have responded, “No, they should not.” The editors of the Baltimore Sun came out against legalizing over-the-counter birth control; the pill “can produce side effects,” they claim, which means women should have to ask a doctor’s permission before they take it. (Aspirin can cause side effects as well, so we’re eagerly awaiting the Sun’s editorial that supports prescriptions for Bayer.) Melissa Reed, the vice president of public affairs at the Planned Parenthood Health Systems Action Fund, was repulsed by the idea that women might be able to walk into a drugstore and get oral contraceptives: it’s a “meaningless political ploy,” she claimed, and a “political shell game;” “It is important,” she said, “that a woman is able to consult with her doctor and pick the birth control method that works for her.” (Women could still talk to their doctors if birth control were OTC, but oh, well.) Lisa Wirthman, a columnist at the Denver Post, called GOP candidate Cory Gardener’s OTC birth control proposition a “disingenuous move” and a “political attempt to weaken contraceptive coverage under the [Affordable Care Act].”
We Care About Ourselves, Not Women
Apparently worried that the debate was not histrionic enough, Planned Parenthood Action Fund President Cecile Richards announced that the GOP push for prescription-free birth control would take women back to “the 1950s” and dismissed the move as a “political game.” “We support making [birth control] available over the counter,” Richards declared, and claimed, “At Planned Parenthood, we are eager to work with anyone who has an idea that would make birth control more readily available to women.” This is in the same op-ed, mind you, in which she denounces a group of candidates who want to do just that. Cecile Richards was for over-the-counter birth control before she was against it—and all in the space of a few paragraphs.
In short, the Left is tripping all over itself trying to figure out how to oppose one of the most uncontroversial and uncomplicated advances in women’s rights to come along in the past 50 years. The “War on Women” narrative has become not merely muddled, but outright bizarre: liberals are accusing Republicans of wanting to deny women access to birth control because Republicans want to make birth control more accessible to women. Much of the pushback comes because these same Republicans favor removing the contraceptive mandate from Obamacare: that is to say, women would face the prospect of paying for over-the-counter birth control out of pocket instead of through insurance.
Over-the-counter birth control, of course, would be much cheaper than its prescription-based form, so it’s a perfectly reasonable proposition; yet even if we rule out the savings, we have to marvel at just how silly the debate has become. Reed breathlessly claims that removing mandated contraceptive coverage from the law might cause women to “lose their individual savings of up to $600 a year.” This is a “steep economic price,” according to Reed; that is to say, a maximum price tag of less than two dollars a day is apparently something most American women are incapable of handling. Modern American feminism is rarely so alive as when it’s claiming women are incapable of paying for inexpensive routine purchases.
So what’s the point of all this? As Ben Domenech noted in these pages recently, Planned Parenthood’s opposition to over-the-counter birth control is probably more of a financial concern than anything: over a third of the abortion provider’s “services” are related to contraception, and if birth control were widely accessible, without the doctor-patient mediator in between, Planned Parenthood would probably lose a great deal of income. Reed and Richards are acting understandably, if selfishly and cynically, by opposing such a commonsense measure. Their paychecks depend on it.
A Political Rift Threatens
More broadly speaking, liberalizing birth control could lead to a radically different political landscape for women. From the beginning of the contraception mandate debate, the Left has held that American women are helpless and desperate creatures withering under the birth-control-denying patriarchy for the entirety of their lives, forced to have 12 to 15 children, scrub the kitchen floors, submit to their husbands at all times, and remain slaves to their own awful biology throughout their childbearing years. Their saving grace would be found in state-mandated insurance coverage of oral contraception, without which women would be catapulted back to the 1950s and re-enslaved barefoot in the kitchen.
Democrats wanted us to believe that, without Obamacare’s birth-control provision, women were better off dead. If contraception were made widely available, easily accessible, and even cheaper than it already is, this false narrative would be rendered even more absurd than it was—which could easily lead to women seeing much of the Democratic Party for the bad joke it’s become. The Left wants women to be dependent upon progressive leadership; it could not afford to lose the influence and the votes of so much of the body politic if the “War on Women” sham were to be dealt so serious a blow as GOP-supported over-the-counter birth control.
This is political clarity in all its uncomfortable glory: Progressives, so long the self-appointed champions of women’s advancement, have now pledged themselves to hold women back in order to advance their own shallow goals. It is both awkward and immensely helpful, from time to time, to see certain people for who they really are, and to divine their true motivations.
We can head into election season expecting the Progressive elite to adopt an altogether baffling set of talking points: Republicans wish to hold women back by trusting them to make their own medical decisions, while Democrats want to set women free by forcing them to see a doctor in order to obtain a widely-used pharmaceutical. It will make for an interesting November. The “War on Women” may be false, but it’s at least clear the Left is perfectly happy to use women as collateral in their own shallow and narcissistic battles.