By Allison Stevens
Washington Bureau Chief
Friday, July 20, 2007
Republican candidates are either dodging discussions of emergency contraception or quietly opposing it. Pro-choice Republicans, however, think front-runners are all more moderate on the topic than the Bush administration.
WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)--While vocal in their opposition to abortion, a number of candidates for the Republican Party's presidential nomination are also taking quiet stands against emergency contraception, sold under the brand name Plan B.
Nearly all of the 10 major Republican candidates have indicated through comments, congressional votes or gubernatorial actions at least some opposition to emergency contraception, a post-coital hormonal contraceptive viewed by religious conservatives as a drug causing an abortion.
The position enables Republican presidential hopefuls to curry favor with their party's base, which wields heavy influence in primary elections.
"If they're playing to the ultra-conservative anti-abortion far-right base, then opposition to emergency contraception will be as good an issue for them as opposition to abortion is," said Marjorie Signer, a spokesperson for the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice in Washington, D.C.
Taking that stand could come back to haunt a nominee who opposes emergency contraception if voters are aware of the position during the general election.
That is a very big if, Signer said. Although polls show an overwhelming majority of the electorate favors access to birth control, candidates are not publicizing their positions on campaign Web sites or in speeches to large audiences, the media is not focusing on it and voters are not keyed in to the issue, she said.
Coverage of the Republican race has zeroed in on the question of abortion because it is a "black and white" issue, Signer said. But "the media is not aware of emergency contraception. I have heard even well-informed legislators get confused on it."
Family planning advocates are trying to change that. The National Council of Jewish Women in Washington, D.C., has kicked off "Plan A," a campaign to educate voters about threats to contraceptive access. The Women Donors Network in Menlo Park, Calif., and the Communications Consortium Media Center in Washington, D.C., have done the same with their jointly produced "Birth Control Watch."
Since Plan B was approved by the Food and Drug Administration for over-the-counter sales to women 18 and older in August 2006, sales of the pill have doubled and are projected to rise to $80 million in 2007, the maker, Barr Pharmaceuticals, Woodcliff Lake, N.J., announced.
A spokesperson for Republican Party frontrunner Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York City, did not return calls for comment.
Family planning experts are confident he supports access to emergency contraception and other forms of birth control given his record on reproductive rights. He is the only Republican candidate who has stated his support for abortion rights and has contributed in the past to the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, the New York-based provider of family planning services including emergency contraception.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a one-time supporter of abortion rights, laid out his credentials on the issue before an audience of anti-choice activists at the National Right to Life Convention in Kansas City, Mo., in June.
Romney said he defined the beginning of life as occurring at conception, language suggesting he opposes emergency contraception, which can prevent a fertilized egg from implanting in the uterus. The Washington-based American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists defines pregnancy at the onset of implantation and considers emergency contraception a preventive rather than abortive measure. Under the medical definition, Plan B prevents pregnancy if taken within 72 hours of intercourse.
Romney also said he vetoed emergency contraception legislation that he characterized as giving young women access to "abortive drugs" without a prescription or parental consent. Romney apparently confused Plan B with RU-486, which can be used to terminate pregnancies during the first trimester. Anti-choice groups have launched a more open attack to restrict access to RU-486, but it remains available.
Romney also said he backed abstinence-only education, which bars discussion of contraceptives outside the context of their failure rates.
"Every time I faced a decision as governor that related to life, I came down on the side of life," he said.
Giuliani's two other closest rivals--Sen. John McCain of Arizona and former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee--have not made public comments about emergency contraception and their campaigns did not return calls for comment.
In 2005, McCain voted against the Prevention First Act, which would have given sexual assault victims information about and access to emergency contraception and would have provided funds to educate women about the option, according to the National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Association in Washington, D.C.
In 2003, McCain voted against a separate bill that would have set aside federal money to raise awareness about emergency contraception and would have required insurance companies to cover contraception.
Both McCain and Thompson, who served from 1995 to 2003, backed a 2000 effort to prohibit federal family planning programs from being used to distribute emergency contraception to teens. Both also supported a 1996 plan to shift federal dollars from health programs for women and children to "abstinence-unless-married" education.
Recently, McCain dodged a question about government funding of contraception, according to a March report in the Washington Post. "Whether I support government funding for them or not, I don't know," McCain was quoted in response to a question about contraceptives.
This month, Thompson denied working as a lobbyist for the National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Association, a family planning group in Washington, D.C., according to a July 7 story in the Los Angeles Times. But the group's minutes from a 1991 board meeting show he was employed to lobby President George H. W. Bush to ease an abortion restriction.
Second- and third-tier Republican candidates, meanwhile, have been more explicit in their opposition to emergency contraception and birth control.
Reps. Duncan Hunter of California and Tom Tancredo of Colorado, Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas and former Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas have all publicly said life begins at the moment of conception. Several have taken direct stands against emergency contraception.
Texas Rep. Ron Paul, meanwhile, does not favor legislation barring emergency contraception but would not support government funding of it either, he said.
"A lot of them are even further to the right than" President Bush, said Kathryn Prael, a spokesperson for Washington-based NARAL Pro-Choice America, a leading abortion rights lobby.
In announcing the long-delayed decision to allow over-the-counter sales of Plan B, which had been put on hold since 2003, then-FDA Commissioner Lester Crawford overruled the recommendations of his own advisory panel, which had recommended non-prescription sales of the drug to women of all ages.
The Bush administration has also appointed anti-emergency contraceptive nominees to the FDA's Reproductive Health Drugs Advisory Committee, omitted emergency contraception from Department of Justice recommendations for treating sexual assault victims and reversed a Department of Defense decision to make emergency contraception available at military health centers.
Ann Stone, chair of Republicans for Choice in Alexandria, Va., predicted frontrunners Giuliani, McCain, Romney and Thompson would take a more moderate approach to contraception than Bush has in his two terms in office.
"Some would say we have nowhere to go but up," she said.
As for the lower-profile candidates who are more in step with the current administration, Stone hopes they will fracture the influence of religious activists.
"We're happy they're there," she said. "The more there are the more diluted that vote is and the more likely Giuliani wins."
Allison Stevens is Washington bureau chief at Women's eNews.
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