In a sea of terrible anti-abortion legislation, there appears some hope: Birth control pills may be more readily available at a drug store near you.
Last week, an advisory committee for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) unanimously determined that birth control pills should be available over the counter without a prescription. This adheres to evidence-based guidance from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the American Medical Association: “The scientific evidence is clear that over-the-counter access to contraception without age restrictions can be accomplished safely, and the benefit of increased access is significant.”
Making birth control pills available without a prescription is a step in the right direction because some patients wait as long as six months to see a provider for a prescription. And since 77 percent of women get their birth control at a doctor’s office, this is a major barrier for millions of people.
Birth control pills without a prescription also have the potential to make it more affordable. For example, although the Affordable Care Act requires most insurance plans to cover prescription contraceptives at no cost, research has found that 41 percent of women between the ages of 18-49 are unaware of this. Furthermore, some health care plans do not cover contraception, and one-fourth of women are not using their preferred birth control method because they cannot afford it. Additionally, one in five women have had to stop using birth control because they were uninsured and could not afford it.
These disparities are sharpened by employers who object to covering workers’ birth control for religious or “moral” reasons. In 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby that employers could refuse to cover contraception in their health insurance plans due to religious objections. And in 2020, the Supreme Court upheld the Trump administration’s religious exemption mandate in Little Sisters of the Poor v. Pennsylvania, exempting employers of any size, including publicly traded businesses, from providing birth control to employees if it goes against the employer’s religious beliefs.
Objections to birth control access are not rooted in science, but religion. For example, Sally Rafie, a pharmacist at the University of California–San Diego, explains that common painkillers like aspirin and ibuprofen may have higher risk than birth control pills. Meanwhile, Missouri state Sen. Paul Wieland incorrectly equated birth control to abortion, stating: “Anything that destroys that life is abortion, it’s not birth control.”
In states such as the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s home state of Wisconsin, over-the-counter access to birth control would be especially important, since Catholic hospitals account for 43 percent of hospitals overall — the highest in the nation. Often located in low-income, historically marginalized communities, Catholic hospitals follow religious directives. This means that they do not provide vasectomies, tubal ligation, contraception, abortion or even the “morning after pill” for rape victims.
This is ironic, since the funding and clinical trials for the first birth control pill came from two Catholics: Katherine Dexter McCormick, the second woman to graduate from MIT and a founding member of the League of Women Voters, and Dr. John Rock, a gynecologist and co-developer of “the pill.” Dr. Rock even opined that the Catholic Church should embrace oral contraceptives in his book The Time Has Come: A Catholic Doctor’s Proposals to End the Battle over Birth Control.
Although a final decision is expected in a couple of months, the FDA advisory committee’s move regarding birth control pills is historic and important. After all, abortion has been increasingly restricted and banned throughout much of the United States after Roe v. Wade was repealed last June. This means that we should make birth control as accessible as possible. I have no doubt that Christian nationalist legislators will attempt to block or curb birth control access, just as they have done abortion medication. Therefore, secular voters and activists must champion its availability for all.