Should the Pill Be Available Over the Counter?

"Women aren't stupid, but the Food and Drug Administration treats them like they are"

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As the Wire noted in Tuesday's column roundup, The New York Times on Wednesday ran an op-ed arguing for the birth control pill to be approved for over-the-counter use. Kelly Blanchard, the author, pointed out that the pill meets the F.D.A. criteria, but that currently its effectiveness, both on an individual level and in society at large, has been limited due to the difficulty women have procuring it, even if all they need is a standard prescription refill.

There's no way the blogosphere's going to ignore an argument like that. Thus far, response has come mostly on left-leaning, libertarian, or feminist blogs, all of which--unsurprisingly--are all for Blanchard's plan. For now, at least, here's that side of the argument:

  • Over-the-Counter Makes Sense The pill's "usefulness has been limited because it's available only by prescription," writes Kelly Blanchard in the original op-ed. "As every woman who has run out of pills on a Sunday or forgotten to take them along on vacation knows, refills are not always easy to come by." There's no compelling reason to keep it prescription-regulated: "Women don't need a doctor to tell them whether they need the pill--they know when they are sexually active and want to avoid pregnancy. Pill instructions are easy to follow: Take one each day. There's no chance of becoming addicted." Take too many and you get nauseous, and take the pill when older, with high blood pressure, or other conditions and you might be at risk of a stroke--but that's not too hard to prevent, and other over-the-counter medications have risks, too. Consulting with a doctor, or perhaps using "Progestin-only pills," with "fewer (and rarer) contraindications and potential complications" might be a way to counteract these risks, Blanchard says. The bottom line:
Women don't need a doctor to tell them if they need cold medicine or condoms, and they shouldn't need a doctor's permission to take the pill. Over-the-counter sales would expand access to safe, effective contraception, and help women take control over their sexual and reproductive lives.
  • Right On, says Jezebel's Irin Carmon. She points to a pro-con counterpoint in the British journal BMJ. The con perspective "doesn't provide medical reasons for why the pill shouldn't be over the counter; it just doubts that it would make much of a difference either way." Her take: "If someone can come up with a convincing reason for a doctor to be involved after the first prescription, surely even they would agree that every six months is excessive and a hassle to obtain the contraceptive pill. Oh, and while we're at it, let's make them free."
  • A Good Time to Stop Infantilizing Women, agrees Reason's Katherine Mangu-Ward. "Women aren't stupid, but the Food and Drug Administration treats them like they are. The contraceptive pill has been on the market for 50 years, but women still have to go begging every year to their doctors and every month to the pharmacist behind the high counter."
  • A Good Point, Though Increased IUD Use Might Be Even Better "To anyone who has ever missed a pill because she couldn't get to the pharmacy in time, or for women whose access to a doctor is sporadic or nonexistent, this is exactly the kind of holy-shit-why-did-no-one-think-of-this-before idea that we've been waiting for," writes Salon's Ryan Brown. She's particularly sympathetic to Blanchard's point that the pill meets all the criteria for over-the-counter approval. Given, though, that the price might well rise with approval, she notes that "American women do have another, oft-ignored option at their disposal, a birth control option that's less expensive, safer and more effective than the pill: the intrauterine device." She takes some time to argue for this option, which remains, in the States, at least, less popular.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.