Tech defeats birth control pill politics

Supporters of employer-paid birth control rally in front of the Supreme Court before the decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores was announced June 30, 2014 in Washington, DC.
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Supporters of employer-paid birth control rally in front of the Supreme Court before the decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores was announced June 30, 2014 in Washington, DC.

What looks like the most significant advance in women's reproductive rights in years is unfolding right now in America, but I bet you haven't heard a word about it from your supposedly pro-feminist politicians or your friendly neighborhood women's advocacy organization. That's because this advance isn't coming from the politicians or the activists; it's coming from the only group you can count on to meet a real need: entrepreneurs.

The advance is a new 3-month-old startup app called Nurx, which allows women to get birth control pills simply by filling out an online questionnaire. A doctor partnered with the app then issues a prescription and the pills get sent to your address by Nurx. The whole transaction is charged to your insurance. In short, this is a disruptor app some are calling the "Uber of birth control" that is showing the way around the unique U.S. rules that don't allow the pill and many other effective birth control methods to be sold over the counter. Almost every other industrialized nation has allowed over the counter sales of birth control pills for decades with no major incidents or problems, putting Nurx in a pretty good place when it comes to medical liability. Using Nurx is only legal in California now, but it will soon be allowed in New York and a few other states. It will likely be available nationwide within 2-3 years.

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This is such an important story because it's instructive for all the people who actually care about making progress in women's health, education, or anti-poverty efforts. The instructive lesson is that the private sector will almost always do a better job of making that progress in these areas. And the reason is very simple: the profit motive is a much better and purer catalyst for progress than regulatory moves or non-profit activism. And yet we all-too-often denigrate people who do things for profit as if they are somehow less worthy than those who promise to do good for political or "charitable" reasons. We even seem to distrust business people more even when those who say they're not out to make a profit often clearly don't have the financial necessities to keep even a small charity going. Nobel winning economist Milton Friedman devoted his career to clarifying this by explaining that so-called "selfish interests" are responsible for just about every human achievement and societal improvement in world history. And it's no coincidence that the people who usually attack profit motives and capitalism the most are politicians and the leaders of advocacy groups. Businessmen and women are their main competition, and they know it.

The reasons for that are many. But the uppermost explanation is businesses need to show results in order to thrive and survive. Politicians and advocacy groups don't. Politicians can often stay in office and activist group leaders can often raise enough money to thrive despite their lack of results if they successfully spin their failures as being the result of some other politicians' or group's "obstructionism." And remember that the politicians and the leaders of any given advocacy group like NOW, NARAL, or even the NRA may have a very different definition of what "success" means compared to the people they purport to represent. Politicians consider themselves successful if they get re-elected. Most advocacy group executives feel the same way as long as they boost or maintain membership and donations. Results oriented? Not so much. That's why you haven't heard any of the major politicians or activists saying anything much about Nurx or even declaring victory by association. For them, victory can be dangerous. It might lead people to believe they don't need them, or worse, they might think they never needed them in the first place.

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For profit businesses, especially smaller businesses, don't have that problem. They can't survive by playing political games or massaging earnings reports. They have to supply a good or service the customers want, period. If they fail to do that within a relatively short time, they will die and no media spin doctor or pollster will throw them any lifelines.

Is Nurx going to be a big financial success? That's not clear because there are still a lot of reasons why it may fail despite the real need for its service. But if we're all lucky the free market, and the free market alone, will decide its fate. And if we're even luckier, Nurx will teach an entirely new generation of Americans why entrepreneurs have the answers to our problems a heck of a lot more often than anyone else.

Commentary by Jake Novak, supervising producer of "Power Lunch." Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.