birth control pills

An advisory panel at the Food and Drug Administration unanimously recommended that birth control pills be made available over the counter on May 10, 2023.

(Photo: UC Irvine/flickr/cc)

After Panel Recommendation, Groups Say FDA Must Approve OTC Birth Control 'Without Delay'

"Every day we wait is another day longer where barriers remain in place, preventing people from getting access to the contraceptive care they want and need," said one leading OTC birth control advocacy coalition.

Reproductive rights groups on Wednesday called on the Food and Drug Administration to approve a birth control pill for over-the-counter use "without any further delay" after an advisory panel unanimously recommended permitting use of the medication without a prescription—two decades after advocates first began campaigning on the issue.

A joint advisory committee voted 17-0 in favor of offering OPill, which was first approved for prescription use 50 years ago, without a prescription after hearing from public health analysts and scientists. Concerns that some FDA scientists raised about patients failing to take birth control correctly unless they were provided the pills by a medical professional were outweighed by the benefits, the panel found.

"The panel expresses confidence in the effectiveness, not only in the general population of females, but also in adolescent populations and those with limited literacy," Maria Coyle, chairwoman of the committee, toldThe New York Times. "The panel seems very comfortable with the limited number of risks from the medication itself."

The Free the Pill Coalition, a campaign started by the global advocacy group Ibis Reproductive Health which has pushed for over-the-counter (OTC) birth control, said the recommendation itself was a "landmark achievement for reproductive justice" and expressed hope that the panel's decision would result in swift approval by the FDA.

"Every day we wait is another day longer where barriers remain in place, preventing people from getting access to the contraceptive care they want and need," said the group. "It's past time for an OTC birth control pill that's fully covered by insurance, affordable, and available to people of all ages."

U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) also called on the FDA to take the advice of the panel "without delay," calling the recommendation "a major step forward in our fight to affirm folks' right to make decisions about their body, when to start a family, and their future."

The Free the Pill Coalition and other groups say OTC dispensing of birth control pills will increase access for people who have logistical or financial barriers to regularly seeing a doctor for a prescription.

Some FDA scientists told the panel that data from HRA Pharma raised concerns about whether people with certain medical conditions that contraindicate the use of OPill would follow warnings if the pill was available over-the-counter, and whether adolescents and people with limited literacy would follow the directions carefully enough to take the pill each day at the same time.

Author and MSNBC contributor Dr. Uché Blackstock called those concerns "quite paternalistic."

"Given the technology available, alternative ways can be developed to help deliver instructions," tweeted Blackstock.

Contrary to those claims, said Dr. Raegan McDonald-Mosley of the contraceptive advocacy group Power to Decide, "the committee followed the scientific evidence and paved the way for a massive breakthrough in access to birth control."

"As a practicing OB-GYN, I am confident that my patients do not need a visit with me to safely and effectively use the birth control pills they need," said McDonald-Mosley. "Requiring prescriptions and provider visits places unnecessary barriers to accessing reproductive health care, especially for those in contraceptive deserts—counties without a single clinic that provides the full range of contraceptive methods. In such areas, people have to travel further just to visit a provider to get their birth control, which means they need to take even more time off work or arrange for more childcare. Allowing OTC access for the pill would help eliminate these unnecessary barriers and increase access to reproductive health across the country."

Crediting the "tireless advocates, including the Free the Pill Coalition," with pressuring the FDA panel to take a significant step toward approving non-prescription use of OPill, NARAL Pro-Choice America said the decision is "not only historic—it is simply the right thing to do," particularly as abortion rights are under attack by right-wing lawmakers across the country.

"As reproductive freedom in our country faces an unprecedented crisis," said the group, "expanding access to proven, safe, and effective contraception has never been more important."

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