In our eventual feminist utopia, birth control will be available in vending machines, water parks, and even those lip-gloss-and-tampon dispensers in movie theater bathrooms. But unfortunately, obtaining oral contraceptive birth control these days is both expensive and enigmatic, especially if you’re young and/or uninsured: Currently, 47 states and the District of Columbia require a doctor’s prescription in order to obtain the pill. Issues of access are likely to get a lot worse once the Affordable Care Act is repealed and replaced by whatever nonsensical Frankenstein bill Paul Ryan put together during his lunch break.
But a new review paper from actual health experts—not politicians—argues that birth control should be accessible over-the-counter throughout the country, and to anyone who needs it, including teens.
Despite the fact that in 2006, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the emergency contraceptive, Plan B, for over-the-counter sales for people 18 and up, very little has been done to ensure the same for hormonal birth control pills. In January 2016, Oregon became the first state to allow pharmacists to administer birth control pills and patches to a patient for up to three years. In April of the same year, California followed suit, but unlike Oregon—where patients were required to be 17 in order to obtain pills—there was no age requirement in place. Just this past February, Colorado became the third state to approve a similar measure, passing a law almost identical to that of Oregon’s.
Still, three out of 50 states is pretty shameful, considering it is literally 2017 and we’re still arguing about something with very few downsides other than the fact it might make some Republicans upset.
At last, new paper from Johns Hopkins Medicine puts the critics to rest. The team of researchers reviewed copious data related to teenagers who take oral contraceptives and found they are indubitably capable of taking the pill responsibly—in fact, many already are. Therefore, the team strongly urged that birth control pills become over-the-counter drugs for adolescents as well as adults. The researchers’ findings were published on March 14th in the Journal of Adolescent Health.
“We tried to review the scientific evidence and list of benefits to a decision [to make birth control available over the counter],” co-author and Columbia University professor John S. Santelli told Gizmodo. “The bottom line of the paper is that we think adolescents are fully capable of taking the pill correctly. We strongly urge that there not be a restriction of age about [how a person can obtain] oral contraceptives.”
The pill is the most commonly used hormonal method of birth control in the U.S., according to the 2011-2013 National Survey of Family Growth. Naturally, as access to to birth control increases, the risk of unplanned pregnancies decrease. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), because contraception has overall become more accessible, teens in the U.S. reached a historic low of 22.3 live births per 1,000 women ages 15 to 19 in 2015.
“Anything we can do to increase access to contraception’s going to increase use,” Santelli said. “There’s just lots of barriers: people forget to get their prescription refilled, they feel reluctant to go see a doctor because they don’t see a doctor, they don’t have money to go for a doctor’s appointment. There’s lots of reasons people don’t take contraceptions...so it’s really whatever we can do to make it easier for them.”
But of course, there are other barriers that are more difficult to change. A concerning number of politicians, including prominent Republicans in the House and Senate like Mitch McConnell and Marco Rubio, have publicly voiced opposition to birth control, citing “moral reasons.” This is, in part, why birth control isn’t readily available at pharmacies across the country.
“There are all kinds of barriers to doing something like [making birth control more accessible],” Santelli explained. “I think frankly, some of them are religious and frankly conservative, constructed issues. Some people don’t believe single people should have access to contraception, and a lot of folks would rather teenagers not be having sex at all. But I think that most people would agree that if teens are having sex, they ought to protect themselves.”
After reviewing decades of literature and studies on teen sexual behavior, the team concluded that young people are pretty damn responsible when it comes to taking their birth control on time. Also, contrary to what some might think, teens did not engage in riskier sexual activities as a result of taking hormonal birth control. Overall, the researchers contend that birth control pills are just as safe as other over-the-counter drugs, and should be available to anyone who wants them, regardless of age. Santelli said that in the scenario of a teenager trying to purchase birth control over-the-counter, pharmacists would counsel the patient on how to take the pills consistently, and how to watch out for side effects, which are not common but always a risk with hormonal birth control.
For the moralists still perturbed by teens protecting themselves against unwanted pregnancies, consider the following: It’s not your body to be concerned about.
“So much of teen girls not taking the pill comes from not knowing where or how to get it—or having to, ick, talk to a parent about wanting to start taking it,” science journalist Shannon Stirone, who’s been taking birth control pills since she was 17, told Gizmodo. “I can’t think of an easier way to prevent unwanted pregnancy than to give young women total control over their bodies.”