By Sheehy, Jessica
The Humanist , Vol. 70, No. 5
WITH THE passing of the pill's fiftieth birthday, much ink has been spilled over the effect oral contraception has had since its initial release in 1960. Women's rights have certainly progressed in leaps and bounds as women took control of their reproductive systems and took advantage of the opportunities this allowed them, flooding universities and business. The pill's level of involvement in the women's movement depends on who you ask--some say it created the movement, others believe its effect is exaggerated due to coincidental timing. Its exceptional performance or efficacy, however, cannot be overstated.
Oral contraceptives are among the most widely prescribed, consistently used, safe, and effective drugs available. Approximately 12 million U.S. women and over 100 million women worldwide use them. The birth control pill is 99 percent effective when used as directed, which, when accounting for missed pills or irregular dosing, translates to about 95 percent in practice. And unlike other birth control methods, oral contraceptives have yet to lose popularity in lieu of an alternate method. Beyond safe prevention of pregnancy, the pill, when taken consistently over a long period of time, has been linked to a decreased risk of ovarian cancer. In addition, oral contraceptives regulate a woman's menstrual cycle and often give her lighter periods with alleviated pre-menstrual symptoms. They can even clear up skin for women who suffer from persistent acne.
After half a century of such success, there is the possibility of another revolutionary advancement in the pill's future: over-the-counter (OTC) availability.
With a world of options open to her, today's woman is often balancing an education or a career, perhaps a family and more, which means getting to the doctor for a prescription can be a hassle. Even worse, it can be an impossibility for women without health insurance and for teens who can't go through a family doctor or access a clinic. Providing an OTC oral contraceptive would increase access, lower the cost, and again change the way women view birth control.
While the idea has sparked controversy, the truth is that we're already part of the way there. Pharmacies in the United States distribute emergency contraception ("the morning-after pill") without a prescription and traditional oral contraceptives are available over the counter in numerous countries around the world. Recent studies conducted in the Southwest have found that an increasing number of U.S. women choose to buy their birth control pills in Mexico because it's easier to cross the border than go to the doctor for a prescription.
The pill even got some rare, albeit vague, support in May from the National Association of Evangelicals when they released a statement saying they wanted to partner with groups providing contraception in order to reduce the number of abortions. But a month later conservative groups, including the Heritage Foundation, the National Abstinence Education Association, and U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, voiced their opposition to the section of the new federal healthcare law that would require employers and insurance companies in all fifty states to fully cover the cost of prescription contraceptives (currently twenty-seven states do). "We don't want to see the sexual health of our young people compromised;' said Valerie Huber, executive director of the abstinence education group. "We are concerned that if there isn't a policy correction, that will be the result" Deirdre McQuade of the Catholic bishops concluded: "Married women can practice periodic abstinence. Other women can abstain altogether. Not having sex doesn't make you sick:' These recycled arguments continue to beg the question, who are we really trying to protect?
A recent study conducted by the Guttmacher Institute determined that at least 40 percent of American girls are already on the pill, which is actually fewer than in most developed nations, and that the figure should, if anything, be higher. …