The Pill Sans a Doctor? Sounds Like Heaven

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It almost sounds too good to be true: Waltzing in and snapping up birth control pills from your local pharmacy's shelves — without going through the rigmarole of the gynecologist's appointment, the prescription drop-off and pickup, the calls for refills. Happily for American women, the Food and Drug Administration is considering making that fantasy a reality by allowing birth control pills and a few other prescription drugs available over the counter.

It sounds revolutionary, but maybe it shouldn't: After 40 years on the American market, the once infamous "pill" is part of mainstream culture. More than 16 million women take the pill, many of them for decades with very few or no side effects, and some doctors argue there is absolutely no good reason those women shouldn't be saved the inconvenience of filling a monthly prescription. There are financial benefits on the line as well: Women would pay less for off-the-shelf pills. Of course, pharmaceutical companies would lose out, as would gynecologists, whose patients' visits would be dramatically curtailed. With opponents who pack a lobbying punch like those two do, it's not hard to see why previous attempts to make birth control pills more freely available might have hit a brick wall.

Of course, no one in this debate is suggesting that there aren't risks to taking the pill; women who smoke or have high blood pressure are not good candidates, and unless you are particularly fastidious about taking your pill at the same time every day, you run the risk of pregnancy. But when one considers the fact that an adult could easily kill herself by downing a bottle of something as universally accessible and generally innocuous as aspirin, the argument to keep the pill out of widespread circulation on the basis of its potential health hazards loses most of its steam.

And interestingly, many pill opponents don't premise their concerns on women's health; rather, they take the view that any further infiltration could lead to increased teenage access to the pill, which, the argument goes, would lead to increased rates of sexual activity. The fact that teens are having sex already and that the pill would simply ensure they wouldn't get pregnant seems to be lost. But that's probably to be expected.