Over-the-Counter Birth Control Made Available in California

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shutterstock_240665947 Birth control via Shutterstock

Obtaining hormonal contraceptives just became considerably easier for California females, as compared to those in 47 other states in the nation. A new law allows women and girls, irrespective of age, to get birth control materials without first having to visit a primary care physician. Instead, they can simply go to their local pharmacist.

But while proponents claim the measure, which went into effect April 8, will remove unnecessary barriers to contraceptives, critics are not convinced. They say bypassing a medical doctor altogether and relying solely on the expertise of a pharmacist, puts patients at risk for any complications that might arise.

California's new law allows women to obtain oral contraceptives and patches without a doctor's prescription. And while it’s true that ease of access might help deter unwanted pregnancies, medical doctors believe that pharmacists should not be the sole prescribers (which, even with the new law, they are not).

California becomes just the third state in the U.S. to enact this type of law. Pharmacists in Oregon and Washington have been dispensing birth control for over 30 years, and according to the Washington Medical Association there have been no reported problems to date.

While the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists had some understated reservations, by and large the "ACOG has long supported over-the-counter access to oral contraceptives," it said in a written statement in January. "Birth control is an essential part of women's health care, and over-the-counter status would help more women benefit from the ability to control their own reproductive health. Of course, decades of use have proven that oral contraceptives are safe for the vast majority of women, and that they are safer than many other medications that are already available over-the-counter.”

ACOG is the largest organization representing OB/GYNs.

Dr. Deepjot Singh, head of the obstetrics and gynecology department at Torrance Memorial Medical Center, said “approximately half of her patients who begin taking birth control must switch to another kind within the first year,” according to the Los Angeles Times, because of unwanted side effects including headaches, weight gain and acne.

Other, more severe side effects known to be attributed to contraceptives, such as unexpected bleeding, might warrant a physical examination -- something that pharmacists are not able to do.

“A pharmacist cannot replace a physician,” Dr. Singh insists.

One mother reportedly reinforced this criticism, recounting when her two daughters were first put on birth control. Both girls experienced headaches and nausea, and she wondered if a pharmacist would have been able to treat the problem as had the girls’ primary care physician.

Other policy advocates, however, firmly believe that pharmacists are equally, if not more so, capable of providing the service. And if problems should arise, they would refer women to their doctor immediately.