There’s a war over birth control brewing in the Senate, and Republican lawmakers want to make it clear that the GOP is on the right side.
On Tuesday, after Senate Democrats introduced a measure to override the Supreme Court’s recent ruling on Hobby Lobby and clarify that for-profit companies must offer contraceptive coverage, their Republican colleagues announced some forthcoming legislation of their own. As the Hill reports, GOP leadership will introduce a bill that appears to be supportive of women’s access to birth control.
“We plan to introduce legislation this week that says no employer can block any employee from legal access to her FDA-approved contraceptives,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said. “There’s no disagreement on that fundamental point.”
If the final bill is along the lines of the initial reports, however, the GOP’s competing legislation wouldn’t do anything to change the status quo. It certainly wouldn’t ensure that Hobby Lobby employees have insurance coverage for contraception. Instead, it’s simply a way for Republicans to reinforce the point that the high court’s ruling on Hobby Lobby doesn’t inhibit women’s legal access to birth control.
The fact that women are still allowed to purchase every type of FDA-approved birth control has become the central argument used to downplay the impact of the Hobby Lobby case. Of course, it’s certainly true. Contraception remains legal, and the decision to allow some for-profit companies to refuse to cover some types of birth control on religious grounds doesn’t mean that all IUDs, for example, are now banned.
But legality isn’t exactly the same as accessibility. And the Hobby Lobby case was about the latter.
Hobby Lobby supporters typically argue that birth control is still widely accessible because it’s cheap. Conservatives have claimed birth control can cost less than four dollars per month and women can simply buy their contraception at any 7/11. However, it’s important to remember that Hobby Lobby won the right to drop coverage for one of the most expensive types of birth control, intrauterine devices, which can cost up to $1,000 out of pocket. Previous research has confirmed that cost is a serious barrier for the low-income women who may otherwise choose to use IUDs. As the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists noted in its brief in opposition to Hobby Lobby, “Lack of insurance coverage deters many women from choosing a high-cost contraceptive, even if that method is best for her health and lifestyle.”
In that context, it doesn’t matter that IUDs aren’t technically illegal. If women don’t have the insurance benefits to make them affordable, they’re still just as far out of reach.
This issue extends to other types of birth control, too (particularly since it’s possible that other for-profit companies will eventually win the right to drop coverage for all forms of contraception). The oral birth control pill isn’t actually as affordable as some Obamacare opponents make it out to be, and can run up to $1,210 each year in doctor’s visits and prescription costs. Those type of extra costs are partly why women of reproductive age spend 68 percent more on their out-of-pocket medical expenses than men do, and that’s why women have historically been forced to make some tough choices about their reproductive health. Before Obamacare’s contraceptive mandate took effect, some women reported that they tried to save money by failing to take their birth control as directed or by switching to a less effective method.
“What we’re saying is that of course you can support both religious freedom and access to contraception,” McConnell told the Hill. That’s a convenient narrative for a party that is eager to win back female support. But what kind of access are we really talking about?
At the end of the day, if McConnell’s potential legislation is any indicator, Republicans are simply willing to go on the record to affirm that they don’t support outlawing birth control altogether. That shouldn’t necessarily be incredibly reassuring to women. Successful efforts to limit access to women’s health care services don’t typically result from outright bans — for proof, look no further than the fight against abortion. It’s easier to slowly chip away at women’s ability to afford their health care, and the first step in that bigger strategy is to cut off their insurance coverage for it.