Colorado’s Republican Senator Cory Gardner is once again touting a bill in support of over the counter birth control.
His office released a letter Monday to the FDA urging the agency to loosen the regulatory process around contraceptives and make it easier for manufacturers to offer them without a prescription. That’s also the subject of Gardner’s legislation, which was introduced in March.
“Safe and effective contraception should be available over-the-counter, without a prescription,” Gardner tweeted Monday. “I’m proud to work with @SenJoniErnst to drive down the cost of contraceptives and help more women have access to their medications on their time.”
To the untrained eye, Gardner’s push for over the counter birth control makes him appear downright progressive — or, shall we say, like a “new kind of Republican.”
But upon closer examination of Gardner’s record, it looks a lot more like he’s throwing his female constituents a bone as he begins his reelection campaign to distract from his long history of threatening to cut off access to birth control and other reproductive health care at every turn.
What’s more, reading the fine print of Gardner’s bill, which he’s sponsoring alongside U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA), who’s also facing a potentially tough reelection, reveals it’s not progressive at all.
Let’s start with Gardner’s record on defunding Planned Parenthood, which millions of women rely on each year for contraceptives. As of last August, Gardner has voted a whopping ten times to defund Planned Parenthood since he’s held federal office.
There’s also his repeated attempts at repealing the Affordable Care Act (ACA), which includes a mandate for employers to cover contraceptives under their insurance plans at no cost to employees. And, late last year, Gardner and Senate Republicans actively blocked an attempt to defend the ACA from a federal lawsuit backed by the Trump Administration. If the lawsuit succeeds, the landmark healthcare law would be thrown out.
If the ACA goes down, millions of people will lose no-cost contraceptive coverage.
“Senator Gardner’s sham scheme to distract from his vehemently anti-choice record has women across Colorado rolling their eyes,” said Colorado Democratic Party spokesperson Alyssa Roberts in an email to the Colorado Times Recorder. “Gardner’s votes speak for themselves: he’s tried repeatedly to defund Planned Parenthood and dismantle the law that ensures health insurance covers birth control while rubberstamping rigid anti-choice Trump judges who are a direct threat to Roe v. Wade.”
And then there’s the fact that Gardner has been silent on Trump’s changes to the Title X program, which provides funding for contraceptives for low-income people. Trump’s new rule, which took effect in July, prohibits health care centers that perform abortions, refer patients to abortion providers, or even discuss abortion with patients from receiving Title X funding.
Planned Parenthood announced it would pull out of the Title X program due to the so-called “gag rule” Monday, the very same day that Gardner trumpeted his birth control bill on Twitter. Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains (PPRM), which encompasses Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming, and Southern Nevada, has already been barred from Title X funds for almost two decades.
The only Colorado abortion provider that lost funding under the new rule is the Boulder Valley Women’s Health Center, which had been relying on Title X for half a million dollars in yearly funding.
There are, however, more than 70 Title X health care providers in the state that don’t provide abortions. Any of those health centers that refer to abortion providers or discuss abortion with patients will have to decide whether to slash their budgets and pull out of the family planning program, or comply with the gag rule and keep their funding.
“Title X funds the essential, and frankly uncontroversial, aspects of reproductive care including birth control, STI testing, cancer screenings. It doesn’t fund abortion care,” said Jack Teter, political director for PPRM. “Cory Gardner continues to ignore the needs of his constituents to access those preventative care benefits that keep communities healthy and safe.”
More than not fighting back against the recent changes to Title X, Gardner once cosponsored legislation to bar abortion providers from receiving Title X funds in 2013 when he was a U.S. Representative.
“Nothing Gardner has done since his election indicates that he actually cares about women, health care, or birth control access,” Teter said. “I think if Senator Gardner actually wants to be helpful, he should defend Title X and he should sign on to the Access is Affordability Act introduced by Senator Murray and Representative Pressley, which is a legitimate step toward increasing contraceptive access.”
Teter is referencing legislation from Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) and Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) that aims to both make contraceptives available over the counter and ensure they’re affordable.
Gardner’s proposal doesn’t include a requirement for insurance companies to cover contraceptives without a prescription, meaning women would have to pay out of pocket. That comes out to about $600 a year for some women, according to Planned Parenthood.
The Democratic legislation, like Gardner’s bill, fast-tracks FDA approval for over the counter contraceptives, but it goes a step further than Gardner’s in making sure that doesn’t mean they’re financially out of reach for some women by requiring insurance companies to cover the cost.
Gardner’s claim that his proposal will “drive down the cost of contraceptives” is dubious at best.
According to an analysis from the Guttmacher Institute, a think tank that supports reproductive rights, not only is there nothing to indicate that the Republican’s plan would drive down costs, it argues that the high cost of over the counter emergency contraceptives, such as Plan B, suggests otherwise:
“Even for birth control pills, the entire premise of conservatives’ argument—that OTC status would automatically make them dramatically cheaper and thereby render insurance coverage unnecessary—is questionable. Emergency contraception has been available OTC for years, but has remained quite expensive. We cannot just assume that OTC birth control pills would be inexpensive, let alone come close to the $0 out-of-pocket cost under the ACA policy. Rather, even for many pill users, making the pill available OTC at the expense of insurance coverage would replace one barrier (ease of access) with another (cost)…. On the issue of costs, the go-to answer from conservatives is to allow people to put aside tax-free savings for health care expenses via HSAs and flexible spending accounts (FSAs). While this might benefit some better-off people, it would be useless for lower-income people who simply cannot afford to set aside those pre-tax earnings up front. In fact, two-thirds of low-income people say an unexpected $500 medical bill would be unpayable or would place them in debt. And even if they could afford to contribute to an HSA or FSA, those with lower incomes would benefit little from the tax deduction, because they have a low federal income tax rate or owe no federal income taxes at all.”
As if there weren’t already enough evidence to indicate Gardner’s purported push for more accessible birth control as a smokescreen, it’s also worth noting that the senator voted to confirm a federal judge who would likely block over the counter birth control.
Thanks in part to Gardner, Wendy Vitter, an anti-choice extremist, now has a lifetime seat on the federal bench.
Vitter once promoted a brochure that said, among other things, that birth control leads to cervical and liver cancers and “violent death” because “women who take oral contraceptives prefer men with similar DNA, and that women in these partnerships have fewer sexual relations, leading to more adultery, and ‘understandably . . . violence.’”
Vitter also has suggested that abortion causes cancer, which isn’t true.
If Gardner is now trying to deceive the public regarding his position on reproductive health issues, it wouldn’t be the first time.
During his first Senate campaign in 2014, Gardner tried to distance himself from his record of support for fetal personhood, a hallmark of anti-abortion extremism which gives legal human rights to fertilized eggs and fetuses.
In a breathtaking interview with Fox31’s Eli Stokols, when asked why he was still listed as a cosponsor on a federal personhood bill even after he came out in opposition to personhood, Gardner falsely claimed multiple times that “there is no federal personhood bill.”
Rather than addressing this obvious inconsistency, Gardner continued to pivot to — you guessed it — his stance on over the counter birth control.