Republican lawmakers in Wisconsin found themselves in the unusual position Wednesday of breaking with anti-abortion groups and advocating for a bill that broadens birth control access, an area where Democrats typically lead.
Republicans could undermine a key Democratic campaign issue by passing the bill, but they also find themselves in conflict with groups that are typically their allies. Pro-Life Wisconsin and Wisconsin Family Action, a leading anti-abortion group, oppose the measure on moral and ethical grounds, saying increasing access encourages premarital sex and the odds of unintended pregnancies and abortions.
“I don’t understand the push for this legislation,” said Wisconsin Family Action president Julaine Appling, testifying before the Assembly Health Committee. “I don’t know where it’s coming from. I haven’t heard a clarion call from masses of people saying we’ve got to have more access to contraception.”
Only doctors can prescribe hormonal birth control under current state law. The bill would allow pharmacists to prescribe hormonal contraceptive patches and birth control pills, but patients would first have to fill out a self-assessment questionnaire and undergo a blood pressure screening. Pharmacists would be prohibited from giving prescriptions to anyone younger than 18.
Bill sponsor Rep. Joel Kitchens, R-Sturgeon Bay, said the measure would reduce the number of unintended pregnancies, because more women would be able to plan their pregnancies if they could get birth control from a pharmacist.
“This is not a Republican or Democratic issue,” he said.
Both conservative anti-abortion Republicans and liberal Democrats on the health committee raised concerns.
Democrats questioned why a more expansive proposal they presented in 2015 and again this year wasn’t being considered. Republicans raised concerns about giving pharmacists the prescription power and the merits of making it easier to prevent pregnancies that may be unwanted initially, but later accepted.
Rep. Katrina Shankland, D-Stevens Point, speaking before the hearing, said Republicans want to “check off a box around the time they want to get elected” to show they support women. Still, she hoped they would work with Democrats on amendments to broaden access to contraception under the bill, including incorporating a proposal she introduced with bipartisan support that would require insurance companies to cover 12 months’ worth of birth control at a time.
Eleven other states have laws allowing pharmacists to prescribe birth control: California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maryland, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Oregon, Tennessee, Utah, Washington and West Virginia.
The laws vary by state, with some limiting the types of contraception allowed to be prescribed by pharmacists or not allowing those under 18 to receive them. And even in states that allow it, not every pharmacy provides the service because of training requirements and other restrictions.
In Wisconsin, the much broader Democratic bill would place no age limits on who could get the prescription, and patients would not have to complete a self-assessment form or go through a blood pressure screening. The bill would make it easier for women to receive a prescription by prohibiting a pharmacist from requiring the patient to schedule an appointment or to provide proof of a clinical visit for women’s health within the past three years.
Dr. Michelle Farrell, owner of the Boscobel Pharmacy, said she supports the Republican bill as a way to bridge a gap in health care to make birth control more widely available to women who have trouble getting it now with a doctor’s prescription. She asked lawmakers to consider expanding the scope of what can be prescribed.
The Pharmacy Society of Wisconsin and the Wisconsin Nurses Association support the GOP measure.
No Democrats have signed on to the Republican proposal and no Republicans are on the Democratic bill.
To become law, the GOP bill would have to pass the Senate and Assembly, which are both controlled by Republicans, and be signed by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers. The governor’s spokeswoman, Melissa Baldauff, had no immediate comment.
In June, Evers vetoed four anti-abortion bills passed by the Legislature. The move came after Republicans held a rally in the state Capitol rotunda in an effort to publicize the measures and put pressure on Evers to sign them. He vetoed them the next day.