Making birth control pills available OTC could benefit teens most

Support for making birth control pills available over-the-counter (OTC) has been growing for years. A new review of oral contraceptive (OC) research, coauthored by Dr. Daniel Grossman, renews and strengthens the OTC case—with a focus on the potential benefits for adolescents.

In addition to summarizing prior research proving demand for OTC OCs and rebutting common concerns about teens’ ability to use them safely, the review also draws on newer data. Specifically, it cites data collected since emergency contraception (EC) became available OTC—a switch backed by Bixby Center research. Although EC use nearly tripled after it became more available OTC, the number of teens engaging in intercourse stayed the same. In other words, increased access helped teens act more responsibly, not recklessly—as some feared it would.

The authors further argue that two characteristics unique to adolescents make them especially likely to benefit from OTC access to OCs: 1) They are less vulnerable to the cardiovascular risks associated with OCs; and 2) They are less likely to feel comfortable asking a provider for prescription contraception.

By switching OC to OTC, the FDA could further accelerate the recent drop in unintended pregnancies, which research indicates is largely due to increased access to contraception. The only outstanding concern is the affordability of OTC birth control, which would not be covered by insurers under the Affordable Care Act’s current contraceptive mandate.

Listen to coverage of this article on NPR's All Things Considered.