Women's health and reproductive rights experts are lining up to lend support to the push to make oral contraceptives available without a prescription.
This week, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists issued a committee opinion, calling for the switch.
The aim is to increase access and lower the unintended pregnancy rate, which has held steady at 50% in the U.S. for two decades.
"I think it's great," says Jeff Peipert, MD, PhD, the Robert J. Terry professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Washington University in St. Louis. "These pills are very, very safe. Pregnancy is far riskier than taking a birth control pills. In fact aspirin has greater health risks than the birth control pill."
"I think the benefits outweigh any downsides," says Dan Grossman, MD, vice president for research at Ibis Reproductive Health, a nonprofit organization dedicated to research and the promotion of reproductive rights and women's health.
Ibis issued a statement applauding the move.
Easier access to birth control pills should help reduce the U.S. unintended pregnancy rate, according to the ACOG. The price tag for U.S. taxpayers is about $11.1 billion every year.
No birth control pills are currently available over the counter. Emergency contraception (such as Plan B) is sold over the counter.
Making the pill available over the counter will reduce or remove two barriers--access and convenience, the doctors say. Teens who may be reluctant to ask a family doctor for the pill would have access.
How it will affect the barrier of cost remains to be seen. On average, the cost for birth control pills is about $16 a month, surveys suggest.
Some women could be affected adversely if the pills goes over-the-counter and they lose insurance coverage. While the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services guidelines require new private health plans to cover, cost-free, all FDA-approved contraceptive methods, it is not clear how those guidelines will play out. Medicaid is exempted.
"But it's important to remember this would [if approved by the FDA] add another way to access birth control--it wouldn't eliminate any existing ways," Grossman tells Take Part. "Women who want to go to a doctor [for their contraceptives] would still have that option."
In a video released by ACOG along with the announcement, it emphasizes the importance of an annual ''well woman'' visit to her doctor, regardless of how a woman gets her birth control method.
Research suggests that those who get birth control pills without a prescription will still see their doctor for screening and other preventive health needs.
One oft-mentioned risk of oral contraceptives--blood clots--is low, the ACOG says, "and significantly lower than the risk of blood clots during pregnancy and the postpartum period."
Women are able to determine their own health risks and decide if they should or should not take the pill, according to ACOG.
The process of reclassifying drugs from prescription to over-the-counter status is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. It relies on its advisory panels to make the decision.
That takes time, of course. "I think the timeline might be two to four years," Grossman says.
The complete opinion by the college is published in the December 2012 issue of the journal Obstetrics & Gynecology.
Kathleen Doheny is a Los Angeles journalist who writes about health. She doesn't believe inmiracle cures, but continues to hope someone will discover a way for joggers to maintain their pace.
- Family Health