Over-The-Counter Birth Control Could Be Huge For Women — With One Exception

In the wake of the Affordable Care Act contraception mandate, religious exemptions and the Hobby Lobby case, a new avenue for low-cost birth control emerged: over-the-counter pills at your local pharmacy. As it turns out, this may be the way to lower unintended pregnancies once and for all in the United States — or at least greatly reduce them. Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco recently found that over-the-counter birth control pills could reduce unplanned pregnancies among low-income women by up to 25 percent. 

The study, published in the journal Contraception and conducted in collaboration with nonprofit Ibis Reproductive Health, looked specifically at low-income women, who often have less access to birth control pills due to either a lack of health insurance, discretionary funds, or low-cost clinics in the area. Women who cannot afford the pill, or receive a prescription for it, tend to rely on less effective forms of contraception, such as condoms, the researchers stated. Many times, low-income women use no form of contraception at all.

However, that can change with over-the-counter birth control pills. The researchers found that 21 percent of low-income women at-risk for unplanned pregnancies would use over-the-counter birth control; another 11 to 21 percent would use the over-the-counter pills if there were no out-of-pocket costs.

Overall, the researches estimated there would be between a 20 percent to 36 percent decrease in the number of women using ineffective forms of contraception or no contraception at all, resulting in a significant reduction of unintended pregnancies. 

Reproductive health activists say this new research, which shows a possible 25 percent reduction of unplanned pregnancies, should nudge politicians into moving forward on contraception access and affordability. And while many Republican politicians came out in support of over-the-counter birth control during the 2014 midterm elections, just having the pills on the shelves is not enough to curtail unplanned pregnancies.

As the researchers noted, low-income women would be more likely to purchase over-the-counter birth control if there is no copay. This isn't a debate about over-the-counter birth control versus insurance-covered contraception; it's a combination of both systems that makes it so effective.

"Every woman in America should have access to the birth control method that's best for her, without barriers based on cost, availability, stigma, or any other hurdle," Planned Parenthood Action Fund President Cecile Richards said in a statement. "We have to also ensure that it's affordable by protecting insurance coverage that is already helping more than 48 million women get birth control with no copay."

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