Oregon and California now allow for women to get the birth control pill without a prescription. Will other states follow?
In its more than 55-year history, birth control pills have been available only by prescription in the U.S.
And in that time, the pill has become the go-to contraceptive choice for sexually active women. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, roughly 4 in 5 sexually experienced women have at one point taken the pill. It's considered highly effective, with a more than 90% success rate.
Still, despite its popularity and track record of relative safety, the process of actually acquiring hormonal contraceptives has required women to get prescriptions.
For women in Oregon who use the pill, getting a refill just got a lot easier.
In July, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown signed House Bill 2879 into law, granting pharmacists the right to dispense oral contraception without a prescription. That law went into action Jan. 1, making Oregon the first in the nation to cut out the middleman (the doctor) in this low-risk transaction.
"Oregon has the rare opportunity to drive the national conversation around women’s health, family security, and poverty," said the bill's sponsor, state Rep. Knute Buehler. "This will become landmark legislation that reduces unplanned pregnancies, gives women more control, and affirms Oregon’s reputation as a leader in health care innovation."
21% of low-income women who are at risk for unintended pregnancy are likely to use the pill if it's available without a prescription.
That's according to a 2015 study published in the health journal Contraception. Additionally, researchers found that making the pill available for free and without a prescription would reduce the number of women using no birth control or less effective methods by 20-36% and bring down the number of unintended pregnancies by 7-25%.
Fewer unintended pregnancies is a win for everyone.
The new law also makes additional training available for pharmacists.
Some of the law's opponents have expressed concern that pharmacists may not be equipped to handle certain situations. After all, if the pill has required a prescription all this time, there must be a reason for that, right?
"Oregon has the rare opportunity to drive the national conversation around women’s health, family security, and poverty." — State Rep. Knute Buehler
Well, it's not as though the pill isn't without some risk — all medications have some risk of side effects. It is possible that hormonal birth control can lead to blood clots, heart attack, high blood pressure, or stroke — and it's important to take those risks seriously.
But that's not reason enough to keep the pill hidden behind a doctor's prescription pad. After all, other safe medications have made the shift from prescription-only to over-the-counter — such as Flonase, Nexium, Allegra, Zyrtec, Mucinex, Claritin, nicotine patches, and, well, you get the point.
To assuage those concerns, the bill's supporters included a provision that will ensure pharmacists are qualified and informed on the topic of birth control, side effects, and risk factors.
Other states aren't far behind Oregon.
In 2013, California passed a similar bill. Ever since, the state's Board of Pharmacy has worked to develop a plan of action for pharmacists. Beginning Jan. 1, pharmacists in California began dispensing birth control without a doctor's prescription. California's plan differs from Oregon's in a few minor ways, but the sentiment is the same: one less barrier to women's health care.
Lawmakers in Colorado and Washington also have taken up similar legislation.
As other states put additional restrictions on reproductive health care, Oregon, California, Colorado, and Washington stand out for doing the opposite.
In a time when reproductive health care is under attack in many states, it's heartening to know some are doing what they can to expand access to essential, vital care. If Oregon's and California's new laws wind up being successes, there's hope other states will follow suit.