Can a rising tide of female legislators lift all boats?

Across the country, female candidates achieved record wins. For the first time in U.S. history, Congress is 20 percent female.

Yet, the “Year of the Woman” can’t reverse years of policies that restrict reproductive rights. In fact, restrictions are ongoing. At the state level, voters approved abortion bans and elected anti-abortion governors. At the federal level, the Trump administration rolled out various policies that restrict access to contraception.

Even at its highest percentage of female representation, Congress will continue to be a battleground for restrictive laws on women’s bodies. Yet, on the issue of birth control pills, there is a simple way to win. Female legislators should propose national legislation that allows pharmacists to prescribe birth control. This measure will make birth control available at the local drug store, increasing access for women across America.

Currently, women must receive a prescription from their OB/GYN or primary care doctor to access birth control pills. This process involves waiting weeks to see a provider for a pill that physicians believe should be over the counter in the first place.

Over 100 countries, including our neighbor Mexico, provide birth control over the counter. Hundreds of women on the U.S.-Mexico border even travel to Mexico to buy birth control. Don’t tell this to Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpDC board rejects Trump Hotel effort to dismiss complaint seeking removal of liquor license on basis of Trump's 'character' DC board rejects Trump Hotel effort to dismiss complaint seeking removal of liquor license on basis of Trump's 'character' Mexico's immigration chief resigns amid US pressure over migrants MORE though. It will give him more reasons to build his wall.  

We need a simple solution because the Trump administration is gaining momentum in its battle against women. The latest effort is a new rule which extends “moral and religious exemptions” to employers who don’t want to cover birth control. To add insult to injury, the administration also proposed that women affected by the religious exemption obtain birth control from Title X-funded clinics, the federal program that gives millions of low-income American women access to contraceptives. Putting the nail in the coffin, the Trump administration also plans to extend Title X funding to religious family planning clinics which do not provide contraceptives.

Trump’s master plan for women’s reproductive health is simple. He wants to limit access. He’s forcing insured women to take subsidized birth control away from uninsured women and funding clinics that don’t even provide contraception.  

In addition to stressing overwhelmed Title X clinics, diverting funding to clinics that don’t provide contraceptives will exacerbate the issue of access. Rural states struggle due to lack of women’s health providers who prescribe birth control. In Georgia, half of the counties have no OB/GYN. One rural provider in Georgia reported that her patients travel 40 miles just to receive care.

Imagine traveling 40 miles only to find out that the clinic does not write prescriptions or provide the pill. This will occur if the Trump administration succeeds in funding religious clinics which don’t provide contraception.

As contraceptive access diminishes, unintended pregnancies and abortion rates will rise. Researchers in Texas found that births by poor women on Medicaid increased by 27 percent after the state cut funding to family planning clinics.

But there’s a solution that even Republicans support: over-the-counter birth control. Colorado Republican Cory GardnerCory Scott GardnerMcConnell defends Trump amid backlash: 'He gets picked at every day' McConnell defends Trump amid backlash: 'He gets picked at every day' The Hill's Morning Report — Uproar after Trump's defense of foreign dirt on candidates MORE previously proposed a bill that would give drug companies incentives to fast-track their pills for over-the-counter FDA approval.

Women’s rights groups are also advocating for an over-the-counter birth control pill, but such a pill hasn’t been manufactured yet. In the short term, pharmacist-prescribed birth control can combat issues of access and growing resistance to reproductive rights.

Pharmacists can already prescribe birth control in some states. Oregon, California, Washington and New Jersey allow birth control to be purchased from a pharmacist. Almost a dozen states in total have implemented or are considering implementing pharmacist-prescribed birth control. In these states, a pharmacist screens women for risk factors, prescribing pills to those who qualify.

But state laws are inconsistent.

However, as states like Alabama and West Virginia tee up for a complete ban on abortion, women need easily accessible, preventative options.

Giving women access to pharmacist-prescribed birth control is not without its political challenges. Republicans might support this legislation with the intention of building their case against the contraceptive mandate of the Affordable Care Act. The mandate currently requires insurers without a religious exemption to cover birth control without a copay. Yet, this is where a Democratic House, now bolstered with female representation, can block regression.

What’s more, numerous states have implemented “contraceptive equity” laws, which mandate that insurers cover the costs of contraception. Twenty-eight states including Colorado, Washington and Nevada have implemented these laws. As efforts to retract reproductive rights occur at the state and federal levels, efforts to protect them are occurring at both levels.   

Led by their female legislators, Congressional Democrats should begin the “Year of the Woman” by expanding birth control through a pharmacist-prescribed initiative. This small step will make birth control available at the community drug store, improving access across America. It is a necessary step in a broader effort to reverse the years against women.

Akshaya Kannan is a research assistant at the Mossavar-Rahmani Center for Business and Government at the Harvard Kennedy School.