Why Over-the-Counter Birth Control Would Benefit Everyone

February 27th 2015

Alicia Lutes

The longstanding struggle in America regarding a woman's right to govern her own body and to what degree the government should play a part in that is nothing new. Particularly when it comes to family planning (meaning birth control, abortion access, and other various services). But the University of California, San Francisco, and nonprofit Ibis Reproductive Health may have found a way — through scientific research! BAM! — to solve the problem that has the potential to satisfy both sides: make birth control over-the-counter.

And, with a bit of finessing on the execution of the concept, we're fairly certain it's an actual win for everyone.

Hear us out: You know how some social conservatives find it an impediment on religious freedoms to require insurance companies to cover birth control (see: the Hobby Lobby ruling)? Well making birth control available over-the-counter, without a prescription, is one way to remove the need for that requirement. If done in this way, people concerned about religious freedom would not have to worry about the birth control mandate, and more liberal-leaning people would have the freedom to make family planning choices.

But over-the-counter birth control must be affordable.

According to a study from the University of California, San Francisco, "Twenty-one percent of low-income women at risk for unintended pregnancy are very likely to use [oral contraceptive pills, heretofore referred as OCPs] if they were available without a prescription." 

Even better? That number only increases when the financial burden is alleviated, the survey found. "In a scenario assuming no out-of-pocket costs for the over-the counter pill, an additional 11–21 percent of all women will use the pill, resulting in a 20–36 percent decrease in the number of women using no method or a method less effective than the pill, and a 7–25 percent decrease in the number of unintended pregnancies, depending on the level of use and any effect on contraceptive failure rates."

Which is to say, essentially: "If you build it (it being accessible and affordable over-the-counter birth control), they will come (responsibly)!" 

In order to satisfy both sides, however, two things must happen that would radically alter how women access birth control. The first part would be to remove the prescription barrier. Sure, Planned Parenthood offers low-to-no-cost birth control, but as has been evidenced by the massive shutdowns and general attacks towards Planned Parenthood, their accessibility is inefficient. To make birth control widely available with a low to no out-of-pocket cost would not only remove insurer and employer worries about their so-called moral authority, but it'll also ensure that the decision is hers and hers alone when it comes to contraceptive and pregnancy care in general

All of this couldn't line up more with a new Brookings Institute study positing that women living at or below the poverty line have the highest rate of unintended pregnancy and the lowest rates of abortion — at the same time. Conversely, affluent women's abortion rate is three times higher — a huge difference that speaks to the accessibility of abortions in general. If getting an abortion in places like Wisconsin — which currently holds some of the strictest family planning laws in the country — costs upwards of $1,300, of course it's only the richer among us who can afford it.

And therein lies the problem. Low-income women are more likely to have unprotected sex without the use of birth control, putting them at greater risk for an unplanned pregnancy that they may not be able to afford. Considering the argument of so many government officials that it should not be the government's job to supplement the costs, it seems like a fairly logical argument, then, to remove the regulatory power all together and make it a more commercially available product — don't you think? Making contraceptives available over-the-counter puts the onus (both morally and financially) on the person and not some bigger entity that, frankly, should have no say in the matter outside of mandating the right to choose what works best for you.

"There are of course strongly-held views on abortion, but it should be hard for anyone to accept such inequalities by income, especially when they are likely to reverberate across two or more generations. Abortion is a difficult choice, but it is not one that should influenced by financial status," the Brookings Institute report concludes.

Besides: we already know that free birth control significantly decreases both the number of pregnancies and abortions in teens, so who's to say that wouldn't be the case with all women across the board if access was so universal, eh?