According to one reproductive health nonprofit, Black women face disproportionate barriers when it comes to accessing prescription birth control.
Common barriers include racism in the health care system; lack of insurance coverage; and the inability to take time off work or school to get to a doctor’s appointment. Black women also remain less likely to discuss contraception with their healthcare providers than others.
Due to those factors that have persisted for years, some reproductive health nonprofits are pushing for an over-the-counter [OTC] birth control pill that’s affordable and accessible for all ages.
One of those nonprofits, Ibis Reproductive Health, currently operates the “Free The Pill” campaign. Since 2004, Free The Pill has acted as an advocacy organization working with clinicians and researchers to advance contraception for women to make it as simple as going to the drugstore and purchasing it like any other need.
Victoria Nichols, Free The Pill project director, said the 17-year effort appears to be paying off. She added that two pharmaceutical companies, one identified as HRA Pharma, are expected to apply to the Food and Drug Administration [FDA] for an OTC birth control pill this year.
“This is a really exciting moment,” Nichols said. “They will submit to the FDA; the FDA will make a decision whether to approve it. We have an entire movement and coalition that’s in support of this and we’re also looking to make sure this isn’t just about a birth control pill going over the counter but making sure it’s truly equitable for the people that face the most barriers.”
(Free The Pill is not funded by pharmaceutical companies or the government and is not affiliated with or funded by any political party.)
Nichols said OTC birth control pills have been slow to materialize due to normal challenges including like proper research and evidence. But with anticipated applications now going out to the FDA, they’re hopeful for a positive outcome this year. If the FDA should approve an OTC birth control pill, pharmaceutical companies will set the price and who will be eligible to purchase it.
Nichols likened it to Levonorgestrel, the OTC emergency contraception, popularly known as Plan B, for women to take up to three days after unprotected sex to prevent pregnancy.
She said that the OTC birth control pill would likely function similarly to Plan B regarding purchase and consumption; however, those details are still to be determined.
According to the CDC, between 2017-2019, 65% of women in the U.S. used some form of contraception, 14% of which, ages 15-49, used birth control pills. Though opponents of birth control have advocated against the contraceptive for religious reasons, opponents and supporters agree on one thing: though generally safe, birth control pills increase your risk of health problems.
Side effects include water retention, high blood pressure, cardiovascular issues, mood changes, irregular periods, the risk for certain cancers and even death in rare cases. Even with such risks, Nichols said, “birth control pills are one of the safest drugs out there.”
“It has decades of safety record that we look to, decades of research, and there’s support from the medical provider community,” she said.
Nichols also wanted to note that Free The Pill’s intent is not to stigmatize unplanned pregnancies but help the public make informed decisions about their reproductive health.
“We never really want this to be about population control but choice and autonomy,” she said. “Everyone deserves to have a choice and autonomy to become a parent, or to not become a parent. And not having access to birth control, equitable or easy access to birth control, can prevent someone from having a choice.”