Time Is Running Out for South Carolina's Over-the-Counter Birth Control Bill

The Pharmacy Access Act is good policy stuck in legislative limbo.


A South Carolina bill that would allow women to access birth control pills without a doctor's prescription is running out of time before the state's legislative session ends. While the bill passed unanimously through the South Carolina Senate, there are only seven legislative days left to pass the bill in the House.

The Pharmacy Access Act would allow women over the age of 18 to receive birth control pills or other hormonal contraception from a pharmacist without a doctor's prescription. The bill also allows pharmacists to dispense the medication to women under 18, provided they can show evidence of a past birth control prescription. The bill does not require pharmacists to dispense the medication.

The Pharmacy Access Act is a reasonable step forward in allowing women more autonomy over their medical choices. Birth control pills have been proven safe and effective. In fact, 19 U.S. states and the District of Columbia already allow pharmacists to dispense hormonal contraceptives without a doctor's prescription. Further, for the few women for whom hormonal contraceptives pose a health risk, the bill mandates that women fill out a risk assessment form, ensuring that those with conditions such as blood clots or uncontrolled high blood pressure will not be incorrectly given possibly dangerous medication.

While birth control pills are both safe and easy to use, in 31 states, women seeking to take them—for everything from contraception, to painful menstrual symptoms, to acne problems—are required to use a physician as a pricey and time-intensive middleman. Uninsured women may not be able to afford that expense, while women living in rural areas often face the obstacle of finding a reasonably nearby doctor with available appointments. Pharmacies, meanwhile, are plentiful and don't require appointments.

One of the bill's most fierce advocates, Rep. Russell Ott (D–St. Matthews) has taken a different approach to advocating for the bill. Ott argues that the bill will reduce abortions in South Carolina: "If we want to get serious about cutting down on abortions, if we're going to decrease the number of unwanted or unplanned pregnancies, we need to get real." As he continued during a subcommittee meeting on the bill, "This is about trying to make sure that women have more of an opportunity to have access to contraceptives than they currently do."

This bill therefore serves as an interesting response to a world in which women are increasingly unable to access abortions. Especially with Roe v. Wade possibly on the Supreme Court's chopping block, increasing women's ability to prevent pregnancy is a surprisingly useful solution from a state whose legislature introduced a bill outright banning abortion earlier this year. In a future where abortion is illegal across red-state America, increased access to contraceptives could become increasingly important.

The measure has broad support in South Carolina. Dawn Bingham, a Columbia-area OB-GYN physician, addressed concerns that the bill would make women less likely to go to the doctor for important screenings, stating in a discussion of the bill that "cervical cancer screenings are not actually recommended annually for most women. It's actually 3 to 5 years for most women."

While the bill passed unanimously in the Senate, and passed out of a House subcommittee with only one opposition vote, the bill's chances of being passed into law are waning as the legislative session draws to a close.

However, the bill's supporters remain optimistic. As Sen. Tom Davis (R–Beaufort) said: "Even social conservatives in the Upstate realize what we are talking about here is avoiding unintended pregnancies, which is going to reduce the number of abortions in South Carolina."