WASHINGTON (AP) — When a handful of Republican Senate candidates called for oral contraceptives to be sold without a prescription, Democrats cried foul.
Republicans still want to repeal "Obamacare," they said, and insurers generally don't pay for over-the-counter products. Women would end up paying more for over-the-counter contraceptives than they would under the free, mandatory coverage provided under President Barack Obama's 2010 health law, Democrats said.
The Republican pitch to sell select forms of birth control over the counter is "a cynical attempt to mask their larger efforts," said the Planned Parenthood Action Fund. Other critics say Republicans are desperate to narrow the "gender gap," in which women — especially young and single women — prefer Democratic candidates.
That's the message Democrats are pushing in four states where Republican Senate nominees have endorsed over-the-counter birth control pills: Colorado, North Carolina, Virginia and Minnesota. The stakes are highest in North Carolina and Colorado, where tight races will help decide whether Republicans gain the six new seats they need to control the Senate.
The over-the-counter proposal is something Republicans "are coming up with now to try to take some of the heat off of what they've done," Sen. Kay Hagan, a North Carolina Democrat, said in an interview. "I think women are consistently upset about people playing politics with their health care."
Hagan is competing against Republican challenger Thom Tillis, speaker of the state House. Tillis, a steady critic of "Obamacare," surprised Hagan at a recent debate by calling for over-the-counter sales of oral contraceptives.
It would provide "more options for women for contraception," Tillis said.
Hagan and her allies later noted that Tillis has supported the "personhood" initiative, which would give fertilized human eggs the same rights as adults. He says, however, the initiative shouldn't restrict access to contraceptives, and abortion should be allowed in cases of rape, incest and to save the mother's life.
Democrats also note that Tillis supported the cutoff of state funds to Planned Parenthood, whose clinics provide women's health screenings as well as abortions.
Reproductive rights is also a front-burner issue in Colorado, where first-term Democratic Sen. Mark Udall faces Republican Rep. Cory Gardner. Udall is hammering Gardner for his previous support of a "personhood amendment" to the state constitution.
Colorado voters twice rejected the proposal, which would have banned stem cell research, some birth control methods and abortion.
Gardner dropped his support for the personhood initiative after launching his Senate bid, and he advocated over-the-counter sales of birth control pills. In a TV ad that calls him a "new kind of Republican," Gardner tells women that Udall "wants to keep government bureaucrats between you and your health care plan."
Gardner said in a statement Thursday: "Getting the politics out of contraception will improve the lives of women. Far too many women across the country still lack access to common forms of oral contraception, and that is simply inexcusable."
Udall has called Gardner's proposal "a way in which to say to voters, 'Ignore my record of my entire public-service career, which is to limit women's health care choices.'" He brought Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Planned Parenthood Action Fund president Cecile Richards to a rally, where they said Gardner was trying to confuse voters.
Gardner says he wants insurers to cover nonprescription birth control. But Democrats note he has voted to repeal the nation's health care law and its mandatory full coverage of contraceptives.
Richard Wadhams, former chairman of the Colorado Republican Party, said Gardner's over-the-counter proposal was a smart way to answer Democrats' effort to use the personhood question to suggest Gardner opposes all contraception.
He said socially conservative and evangelical groups have raised no objections to Gardner's proposal, even though it would make birth control pills more readily available to young, single women. "The silence has been deafening," Wadhams said.
Planned Parenthood Action Fund says it would be happy to see some birth control methods become available without a doctor's prescription. But it's vital, the group says, to protect "the no-copay birth control benefit" mandated by the Obama law.
The fund is running TV ads criticizing Tillis and Gardner. Richards, the fund's president, told reporters Thursday that Tillis' continued call to repeal "Obamacare" while also allowing nonprescription oral contraceptives "is clearly a political smoke screen, and an effort to take away insurance coverage for birth control."
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, the first prominent Republican to push nonprescription sales of birth control pills, told reporters in Washington this week: "The fact that the left has reacted so loudly shows you that it's working." Democrats, he said, realize "they can no longer caricature our position" on contraception.
Associated Press writers Ken Thomas and Kevin Freking contributed to this report.