Oral contraceptives (OCs) are one of the safest and best-studied medications on the market today, and they are also one of the most popular and effective contraceptives available worldwide. Yet in most countries, including the United States, women need a prescription in order to obtain this birth control method. In the face of increasing evidence both that the prescription requirement hinders access to effective contraception and that alternative ways of providing OCs are safe and effective, a growing number of researchers and advocates are considering whether to support over-the-counter (OTC) access to OCs. The lessons learned from the recent OTC switch of Plan B in the U.S. have also reinvigorated the reproductive rights movement to address the issue of freer access to all forms of contraception.
The Working Group on Oral Contraceptives Over-the-Counter was established in 2004 and its membership includes researchers, clinicians, and advocates, as well as industry and policy representatives. The group’s primary goal is to evaluate objectively the risks and benefits of demedicalizing contraceptive care, with an eye toward improving access to OCs and potentially other hormonal contraceptive methods by making them available without a prescription. Since its foundation, the working group has held meetings to review the scientific evidence on the safety of OCs, to develop strategies aimed at improving access to OCs, and to reach out to colleague organizations—both women’s groups and health care provider organizations. The working group has also developed fact sheets, position papers and review articles on OCs OTC and has coordinated responses of member organizations to requests for public comment from the FDA. We have also created a menu of activities and action areas, which focus primarily on needed research and on outreach to women, clinicians and the pharmaceutical industry.