WASHINGTON – GOP U.S. Senate candidate Mike McFadden, of Minnesota, says women should be able to purchase birth control pills over the counter — without involving either insurance or their employer.
McFadden’s position, which he is not broadly promoting on his 87-county tour of Minnesota, was first announced nine days after the Hobby Lobby Supreme Court ruling on the Affordable Care Act. The high court said that requiring corporations to pay for insurance coverage for contraception violated federal law protecting religious freedom.
“I’m a businessman and I’m used to solving problems and I think if we look at Hobby Lobby, it’s a case study in how you can come up with solutions,” said McFadden, in an interview. “Maybe they’re not perfect [solutions], but politics is always the art of the possible, not the art of the pure.”
McFadden says the issue is not about restricting women from being able to obtain birth control, but about employers’ obligation to provide it.
The Hobby Lobby ruling stoked fresh gender wars this midterm election year. The 5-4 decision was applauded by Republicans championing religious liberty, including McFadden, and broadly condemned by Democrats, who called it proof the GOP wants to further limit women’s access to birth control.
Democrats contend the fresh GOP messaging on over-the-counter contraception this summer — which McFadden shares with a couple of other GOP Senate challengers in the swing states of Virginia and Colorado — is a red herring that does nothing to improve access or affordability.
Though the broader “war on women” meme has been leveled against the GOP in previous political cycles, this year Republicans are aggressively fighting back in stump speeches and talking points. They are also employing female Republican lawmakers and wives and daughters to push a message that economic-friendly Republican policies help women.
“Democrats don’t have a record to run on so they’re going back to their dishonest war on women scare tactics,” said Republican National Committee spokesman Michael Short. “This cycle we’re fighting back, letting voters know that Democrats are being deceptive.”
McFadden’s Democratic opponent Sen. Al Franken said he supports a “review by the FDA on the safety of allowing additional forms of contraception to be sold over the counter.”
“But … it won’t put money back in the pockets of the half a million women in Minnesota that have benefited from the requirement that insurers have to cover preventive health care services — including contraception — for free,” said spokeswoman Alexandra Fetissoff.
Polls show the issue appeals to women voters. In a Pew Research Center poll, 48 percent of women think all employers should be required to provide birth control; among men that number is 40 percent. Among all voters, including registered Republicans, 47 percent say they trust Democrats over Republicans on matters related to abortion and contraception.
Pew Associate Director Jocelyn Kiley says the over-the-counter policy may also appeal to the growing set of young voters.
“There’s as much of an age gap as there is a gender gap,” she said. “It may not just be about appealing to women, but it may be about appealing to younger voters. When you look at some social issues, you can see a pretty big age gap as well.”
The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists agrees oral contraceptives should be offered over the counter. The organization worries, though, the policy is being promoted over other important access issues — including price and methods that show more efficacy, like the IUD.
“We haven’t seen detailed plans from the candidates thus far,” said Dr. John C. Jennings, the president of the American College. “From our perspective, it’s access to care that’s important.”
Jennings also points out it would be the Food and Drug Administration — not the U.S. Senate — that makes decisions about what drugs go over the counter.
“Regardless of legislative efforts to make contraceptives available over the counter, it is FDA and its scientists who ultimately determine what medications are and aren’t available,” he said. “It is important to note that currently, the FDA has approved no oral contraceptives for over-the-counter purchase.”
The Planned Parenthood Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota Action Fund takes a more critical view of the positions popping up in various political campaigns across the country.
“It’s a political smoke screen,” said Jen Aulwes, a spokeswoman for the organization. “It’s an effort by some of the politicians … to take away birth control coverage. The politicians pushing for this are the same ones trying to get rid of the birth control benefit of the Affordable Care Act entirely.”
McFadden says if he were in the Senate he “would be vocal about it and push the FDA to as quickly as possible move to make over-the-counter contraception available to adults.”
He says he resents the Democrats’ attempt to make the issue partisan.
“They’re driving this narrative,” he said. “I’m coming at it as a problem-solver … I think this is a great example of what’s wrong with Washington.”
Allison Sherry • 202-383-6120