Could Washington follow the world in easing access to birth control pills?

Birth control pills and other forms of contraceptive are only available to Washington women with a prescription.
Birth control pills and other forms of contraceptive are only available to Washington women with a prescription. (photo by Bryancalabro via creative commons)

Did you know that it’s harder for women in Washington to access birth control pills than it is in countries like Syria, Ukraine, Greece or Egypt, just to name a few?

That could change, with a proposed Washington state bill that would allow pharmacists to prescribe birth control without a doctor’s exam.

“I do think its a good option for women to get birth control and reduce the barriers for young women and women in rural areas,” said Washington State Rep. Lynda Wilson (R-Vancouver) who co-sponsored House Bill 2681.

This bill, co-sponsored by Wilson, six other Republicans and three Democrats, passed with a bipartisan majority vote out of the House on Thursday. It now will head to the Republican-controlled Senate for consideration.

Currently, the only over-the-counter oral contraceptives available to women in Washington without a prescription are emergency contraceptives, such as Plan B.

A doctor’s prescription and exam are required for oral contraceptives in most states in the United States and in 44 other countries. The two U.S. exceptions are Oregon and California, which recently allowed pharmacists to prescribe oral contraceptives.

But in most of the world the pill is more easily available, at least theoretically.

Thirty-five countries allow women to buy birth control over-the-counter without a doctor’s prescription. In the rest of the world, women have access to contraceptives even without prescriptions, according to the OC OTC working group website, which advocates for making birth control pills available without prescriptions.

The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists in 2014 affirmed support for over-the-counter oral contraceptives, saying the benefits outweigh potential problems, which include lack of screening for risk factors and lack of instruction on how to use birth control pills effectively.

Oregon and California recently changed their laws requiring doctor’s prescriptions for birth control. The new law in Oregon also requires insurers to cover a year’s supply of oral contraceptives and pharmacists to attend training to learn how to prescribe contraceptives.

Easier access to oral contraceptives would increase availability of family planning to women with low incomes and teenagers hoping for confidentiality, according to Planned Parenthood.

Increased access is important because recent cuts and closures to Planned Parenthood clinics across the nation has left many teenagers, low income women and non-citizens without access to doctors who can prescribed oral contraceptives.

According to the Guttmacher Institute, which advocates for reproductive health, about 51 percent of the 6.6 million pregnancies in the United States each year (3.4 million) are unintended, which is a significantly higher rate than many other developed countries.

World availability

Most western nations and higher income countries have prescription requirements, including Canada, the U.S., Australia and countries in western Europe, according to a survey by Ibis Reproductive Health.

Countries with strong national family planning programs, like China and India, offer birth control without a prescription, Ibis reported. And in most Asian, eastern European and some African countries explicitly allow birth control to be purchased over-the-counter.

In the majority of countries in the world, including Russia, almost all of South America and parts of Africa, oral contraceptives are available to be purchased without a prescription, even if in some of these countries prescriptions are legally required.