Over-the-Counter Control — Finally

1537
Kaileen Smith
Illustration by Kaileen Smith.

People go to the pharmacy for over-the-counter products like sleep aids, acne cream or cold and flu medication. Now in California, birth control is on that list.

Earlier this month, California joined Washington and Oregon as the only states in the U.S. that allow access to oral contraceptives without a prescription. Passed in 2013, this recently-enacted law covers birth control pills, skin patches and vaginal rings.

Without an age minimum, all individuals have to do is fill out a health questionnaire and a pharmacist will help them choose the contraceptive method that’s right for them. The questionnaire also allows the pharmacist to identify any red flag health concerns and advise the individual to see a physician for medical examination, if necessary.

For more intrusive methods like an intrauterine device (IUD) or a contraceptive implant, people still need to see a doctor, as they require a medical procedure to be administered.

The law has its caveats, but on the whole it’s a victory for women’s health rights, albeit a small one. It allows young people access to contraceptives, increasing the likelihood of teenagers having safe, responsible sex rather than succumbing to the delusion that abstinence-only sex education is in any way effective.

Some critics, however, mistakenly think the new law is harmful.

Camille Giglio, spokeswoman for the organization California Right to Life, said the law sends the wrong message to teenage girls. “The ability to get contraceptives from yet another source is not a benefit to young people,” she said. “It is a barrier to communication between a mother and a child.”

Giglio’s argument against this new law is an example of officials continuing to stall fundamentals of sex education. Providing people with contraceptives can only help them have more responsible sex.

The real barrier is people like her who refuse to communicate the importance of safer sex in an effective, informative way. Public high schools in California were allowed to provide abstinence-only education up until 2012, when a lawsuit was filed against the Clovis Unified School District for failing to give students medically accurate information on sexual health.

In 1991, the U.S. teen birth rate was 61.8 births for every 1,000 adolescent females, and in California it was 73.8, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. Those numbers have dramatically decreased over the years. In 2014, there were 24.2 births for every 1,000 adolescent females aged 15-19 in the U.S., with California’s average just below at 21.1. This stark reduction is largely due to expanded birth control options and more comprehensive sex education.

Of course, increased access to birth control doesn’t just affect teenagers. It also impacts recent college graduates saddled with student loan debt, older couples who may have children already but don’t want any more and people who don’t want children at all. In short, over-the-counter birth control is good for everyone.

It may be difficult or undesirable for someone to acquire a prescription for birth control — maybe a teenager is on their parents’ health insurance plan and doesn’t want them to find out, maybe someone’s health insurance plan doesn’t cover birth control or maybe someone doesn’t have health insurance at all.

An individual may consider visiting a Planned Parenthood clinic in these cases, where they can get several months’ supply of birth control at no cost. However, over California’s vast 163,696 square miles, there are only 112 Planned Parenthood clinics. If someone is without transportation, acquiring birth control that is more effective than condoms may be virtually impossible.

In the aftermath of the Supreme court’s decision Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., which struck down the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate, accessibility of birth control has been a controversial topic in the national limelight for the last couple years. When a for-profit employer can opt-out of providing birth control, it’s necessary that it can be easily purchased elsewhere.

One month’s supply of oral contraceptives can cost up to $50, depending on health insurance coverage. The pelvic exam required to obtain a prescription can cost up to $250. There’s no evidence that making birth control available over-the-counter reduces costs, but it does remove one step from the process.

Some are concerned about what will be lost with the sidestepping of this procedure. A visit to the gynecologist for a birth control prescription often leads to a breast cancer screening, pap smear and STI testing. Critics assume if people aren’t forced to see a gynecologist to get their birth control, they will miss essential preventive tests, but this argument undermines people’s concern and stake in their own health. Increased access to birth control helps diminish the stigma around seeking services for sexual health.

Condoms can easily be purchased at any drug store. When they are used every time, male condoms are 98 percent effective in preventing pregnancy and female condoms are 95 percent effective, but their typical effectiveness rates are only about 85 percent and 79 percent, respectively. Oral contraceptives, on the other hand, are 99.7 percent effective in theory and 92 percent effective in practice.

This policy is a way to reach more people than Planned Parenthood already does, and the attacks against Planned Parenthood over the last year make prescription-free policies even more crucial.

It has been 44 years since birth control was legalized — it’s about time it became more widely acceptable.