Birth control pills will finally be available over the counter in the United States if the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approves a recent request from the French drug company HRA Pharma.
Oral contraceptives can be purchased without a prescription in many countries. But in the United States, women who use birth control pills typically must get a doctor's permission, which requires an annual visit.
"Research has documented that the prescription requirement is a barrier for many people," Victoria Nichols, project director of the Free the Pill campaign, said in July, after HRA Pharma asked the FDA to allow over-the-counter sales of Opill, its daily hormonal contraceptive. That barrier, Nichols noted, "can push birth control out of reach because it means a potentially costly health care provider's visit, taking time off school or work to get to the appointment, and more."
In recent years, a few states have made getting oral contraceptives easier by authorizing pharmacists to prescribe and dispense them on the spot. But nowhere in the U.S. can people purchase birth control pills with the same ease that they can buy Tylenol, antihistamines, or condoms.
It may have made sense to require a prescription in the 1960s, when the FDA first approved oral contraceptives. But today's pills contain much lower levels of estrogen and are backed by decades of research demonstrating their safety. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists supports over-the-counter access, which studies suggest would reduce unwanted pregnancies.
What are we waiting for? During the debate over Obamacare, which was enacted in 2010, Democrats who once favored over-the-counter access instead became preoccupied with requiring insurers to pay for birth control. Republicans responded by suddenly coming out in favor of lifting the prescription requirement for oral contraceptives.
Luckily, we don't need new legislation or a bipartisan consensus to make it easier for women to obtain birth control pills. The FDA can do that by approving HRA Pharma's application.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Will the FDA Free the Pill?".
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