Women should no longer need a doctor’s prescription to get birth control pills, according to a new opinion statement released Tuesday by one of the largest physician-based women’s health care organizations.
Nearly half of all pregnancies in the U.S. over the last two decades are unintended, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), which is now calling for over-the-counter access to the pill to manage the rate.
ACOG is also calling for easier access to the pill for many women in an effort to curb the $11.1 billion a year spent by the federal government on unintended pregnancies.
But some pharmacists and other experts say offering the hormone pill without guidance may be harmful for women.
Birth control pills, intended to stop ovulation, either contain a low dose of the hormone progestin or the combination of estrogen and progestin. It’s unclear whether women will know which type of pill will benefit them, some experts said.
"A challenge of this trend is ensuring that OTC products are appropriately selected and used by consumers,” Mitchel Rothholz, chief strategy officer for the American Pharmacists Association.
According to Dr. Kavita Nanda, one of the authors of the statement and a scientist at the nonprofit research group FHI 360, easier accessibility to the pill would not preclude ACOG’s recommendation that women continue annual wellness visits with their gynecologists.
“The hope is that women will still talk about contraceptives with their doctor,” said Nanda.
Common side effects of the pill include bloating, nausea, and headaches. A small number of women may also experience more serious side effects such as blood clots.
Women are not only prescribed birth control pills to prevent pregnancy. The pill can also help treat severe cramping and ovarian cysts, said Nanda.
Some observational studies also suggest regular use of the pill could prevent certain types of ovarian cancers. However, it’s unclear which women will benefit from the medication.
“In general, for a medication to be considered over-the-counter, the benefits outweigh the risks, and in this case they do that,” said Nanda.
Emergency oral contraception, commonly known as the morning after pill and taken within the first few days of unprotected sex or failed contraception, is currently the only medication intended to prevent pregnancy that is available to adult women without a prescription.
Over-the-counter approval for birth control pills will require studies to prove its safety followed by approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration – a process that could take years.
Should birth control pills be available over-the-counter?
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