A new Illinois law is a bold move for reproductive rights and health equality in the United States.
Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker recently signed legislation that makes birth control pills available over the counter to state residents. The law, which will go into effect on Jan. 1 next year, also requires that state-regulated insurance covers birth control. Women will no longer have to schedule an appointment for several contraceptives, since birth control will be available over the counter. Instead, pharmacies will be able to provide 12 months of birth control pills, rings and patches without a prescription. Illinois is the first state in the Midwest, and the eighth state in the country, to make birth control more accessible and affordable.
Such measures are crucial in countering the Religious Right’s efforts to strip away bodily autonomy from women. As FFRF Director of Strategic Response Andrew L. Seidel has written in Religion Dispatches, “They’re gunning for Roe. And after that, they’re coming for contraception. If that sounds outlandish, remember how they attacked the Affordable Care Act. Remember the arguments they’ve used to redefine religious freedom.” Indeed, research has shown that the vast majority of Americans support requiring employers to provide birth control. In contrast, only one in five have religious objections. Nevertheless, the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Little Sisters of the Poor v. Pennsylvania allows private employers to deny contraceptive coverage under the Affordable Care Act for religious reasons. Simply put, a small religious faction rules the roost when it comes to reproductive health care.
This makes over-the-counter birth control necessary. Research by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists’ Committee on Gynecologic Practice has found that prescriptions are a barrier to accessing contraceptives. The committee ardently supports over-the-counter birth control, citing the safety of birth control and the ability for women to self-screen and determine their own eligibility for hormonal contraceptives. The American Academy of Family Physicians and the American Medical Association also support access without a prescription. And with more than 19 million women residing in contraceptive deserts — that is, counties lacking health centers and clinics that provide birth control — freeing the birth control pill is crucial to health equity.
Meanwhile, religious conservatives are set on eroding Roe v. Wade. And for groups who demonize abortion, it is curious that they do not support freely accessible contraception since studies have shown that birth control reduces abortion rates between 62 percent and 78 percent. Nevertheless, birth control gives women bodily autonomy and freedom — both contrary to the Religious Right’s notions of female submission.
Making birth control available over the counter is an important antidote to extremist efforts to suppress reproductive health care. Let’s call on more states to enact such legislation.