Advocates push for federal approval of over-the-counter contraceptive

The House on Thursday passed a bill guaranteeing women the right to buy and use contraceptives without restrictions, though its path in the Senate is unclear. But many advocates say it’s time to codify such protections into federal law and give women access to an over-the-counter contraceptive without a prescription. Dr. Jennifer Villavicencio joins Amna Nawaz to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill yesterday guaranteeing women the right to buy and use contraceptives without restrictions, no matter what a state government may decide to do.

    It is not clear if the bill will pass the Senate as well. But many advocates for reproductive access say it is time to codify such protections into federal law in the wake of the Supreme Court's decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. And some have long called for an over-the-counter contraceptive that women can get without a prescription.

    Amna Nawaz looks at how that could be changing soon.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Judy, women have been able to get birth control pills with a prescription for six decades. But unlike many other countries, over 100 of them, the U.S. still has not authorized and over-the-counter option yet.

    Now a French drugmaker, HRA Pharma, is asking the FDA to approve a daily birth control pill offered over-the-counter for the first time. The same pill was approved by prescription only back in 1973, but has not been marketed in the U.S. for over a decade. It's a progestin-only pill called Opill. And the FDA's review may take 10 months or so.

    Dr. Jennifer Villavicencio heads equity transformation for the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, or ACOG, as it's known. She joins me now.

    Doctor, welcome to the "NewsHour." Thank you for making the time.

    So let's just start with your view on this. What do you think? Should the FDA approve this over-the-counter status?

    Dr. Jennifer Villavicencio, American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists: Thank you so much for having me.

    And, at ACOG and as a board-certified obstetrician/gynecologist, I'm thrilled to see this application. As you mentioned, we are out of step with our peer countries as it relates to over-the-counter birth control. We have excellent data to show that it is safe and really helps people who need birth control be able to access it without the barrier of prescription.

    And so we're excited at the prospect that the FDA may allow over-the-counter birth control in the United States.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Let's just start with why we're so far off from our peer countries.

    Why has it taken the U.S. so long?

  • Dr. Jennifer Villavicencio:

    It's hard to speculate exactly why this would be.

    It — the FDA process is definitely a complex one and a rigorous one, which should reassure viewers and reassure people who are out there that, if we do get over-the-counter birth control, we will know that it is safe and reasonable to be over-the-counter. There's a lot of concerns about risk factors and about complications as they result from birth control.

    But we know from the data that birth control is really, really safe. And we also know that from — if the FDA does approve it, that it will be an excellent way for people to access birth control without barriers.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, if this improves access, if this is approved, and it does improve access for women, why are you thrilled about it, as you said? What kind of a difference can this make in the lives of women?

  • Dr. Jennifer Villavicencio:

    So we know that many people who need birth control are — they use it over the course of their lifetime.

    So we know that over 90 percent of Americans and American women use birth control at some point in their lives, and that spans professions, religions, race. All different types of people need birth control.

    And so being able to access that, particularly in a very uncertain time right now, is something that will be incredibly helpful to those people who need it, particularly those who are most marginalized in our country, those who are underinsured or uninsured, who have difficulty getting into a doctor to be able to get a prescription.

    And so being able to be an expert in their own lives and go to a drugstore or pharmacy and say, I'm ready to start birth control, will be an excellent way for people to access this essential health care.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So this would mean that you don't have to consult with a doctor, right, have those conversations you sometimes have before beginning a medication, and, also, there wouldn't be an age limit.

    Do you have any concerns with that?

  • Dr. Jennifer Villavicencio:

    Definitely no concerns with the age limit.

    We know that young adults are able to make decisions about medications, and particularly contraception. And I also want to emphasize that this doesn't replace going to the doctor. It just removes the barrier of needing to go to the doctor if you want birth control.

    Birth control is really, really safe. And so in the same way that you go to the pharmacy to get ibuprofen or Tylenol when you have a headache or cold medicine when you have a stuffy nose, people will now be able to do this to be able to prevent pregnancy.

    And if they want to consult with the doctor, if they want to call their health care professional, we're always here to be able to talk to them about it. But we won't be standing in the way of their medication with a prescription.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So many birth control pills contain estrogen, right? But this one does not. It is progestin only.

    Does that raise any concerns for you? Does it change the efficacy? What should people know?

  • Dr. Jennifer Villavicencio:

    So people should know that there are lots of different types of birth control, some that are combined hormonal, including estrogen or — and a progestin, or progestin-only medication, so a singular hormone in it.

    And both are very efficacious. Both are, with typical use, about 93 percent effective, so highly effective at preventing pregnancy. And then, with perfect use, they're around 99 percent. We know that different people are better for certain types of medications, based on side effects or risk factors.

    And most people can take a progestin-only pill very safely. And so we're excited to see the application for this progestin-only pill come over-the-counter. And we're excited to see people be able to use it in real life.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    You mentioned these uncertain times. I'm going to assume that you were talking about the recent overturning of the Roe v. Wade decision. That's now led lawmakers to consider federal protection for contraceptive access.

    I wonder about your take on that. Do you think that's necessary right now?

  • Dr. Jennifer Villavicencio:

    I think that we are seeing unprecedented attacks on the ability of people to access essential health care, including abortion.

    And there has been some mention, even in Supreme Court documents, of potentially impacting the right to access contraception. And so I think the federal government doing anything it possibly can to protect the rights of Americans to access essential health care is something that we support.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Do you see this method, over-the-counter birth controls, becoming the norm here in America one day?

  • Dr. Jennifer Villavicencio:

    I certainly hope so.

    I hope that the FDA will approve the application for over-the-counter birth control, which will open up options for people, again, will not replace a doctor's visit. People will still be more than welcome to come in and talk about birth control, about potential side effects, about risks, about whether or not birth control works for them.

    But then those people that know that it works for them and that they want to start it and immediately begin preventing pregnancy or treating other conditions that they might have will be able to do so without needing a prescription and having to go through that barrier.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That is Dr. Jennifer Villavicencio from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, or ACOG, as it's known, joining us tonight.

    Thank you for your time.

  • Dr. Jennifer Villavicencio:

    Thank you.

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