Make 'the Pill' Over-the-Counter, Doctors Say

A panel suggests birth control pills be made available without prescription.

ByABC News
November 20, 2012, 3:22 PM

Nov. 21, 2012— -- In an attempt to lower the alarmingly high rate of unplanned pregnancy -- and the high cost associated with it -- an expert panel of doctors recommended Tuesday that birth control pills be made available without a prescription.

Specifically, the committee said the potential benefits of over-the-counter birth control pills outweigh the danger, which includes a small risk of dangerous blood clots.

Nearly half of all pregnancies happen by accident, according to government data. These pregnancies cost taxpayers an estimated $11.1 billion each year, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists' Committee on Gynecologic Practice.

The birth control pill, commonly called "the pill," is a formulation of hormones, usually progestin and estrogen, that helps prevent pregnancy mainly by keeping the ovaries from releasing eggs. Right now "the pill" is only available in the United States with a prescription, which the committee said poses a significant barrier.

"Access to and cost issues are common reasons why women do not use contraception or use it inconsistently," said Dr. Kavita Nanda, one of the physicians on the committee.

A survey from 2004, cited by the committee, found that almost half of all uninsured women and 40 percent of low-income women who were not using birth control pills, the patch or the ring, said they would more likely use the pill if it were available over the counter.

This same survey also found that more than two out of three women at risk of an unintended pregnancy would use their pharmacy if more methods of birth control were available over the counter.

The committee said that birth control pills are good options for these women, with efficacy ranging from 92 to 99 percent depending on use.

Dr. Daniel Grossman, an American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists fellow, who was not part of the committee, said oral contraceptives are also safe. "We have over 50 years of experience with this method," he said.

There are still many steps that would have to occur for the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommendation to translate into the availability of birth control pills over the counter. And not all doctors support the idea that birth control pills are safely sold without a prescription.

"I think that the risks far outweigh the benefits," said ABC News' senior medical contributor Dr. Jennifer Ashton, who is also an obstetrician and gynecologist.

"Even though they're hormones ... they're at much higher doses than our body makes, and as such there can be side effects ranging from minor to life threatening," Ashton said. She went on to list some of the side effects associated with birth control pills, including low risks of blood clot, stroke and heart attack. "It's a full spectrum of things that really needs a medical provider in the picture."

Still, the committee noted in its recommendation that the risk of blood clots associated with birth control pills was low, with three to 10 women out of 10,000 taking the pill experiencing such a problem each year. By comparison, past research has found that the risk of blood clots associated with being pregnant is five to 20 women out of 10,000 each year, while the risk of clots associated with having just given birth is 40 to 65 per 10,000.