On July 13 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the country’s first over-the-counter pill, a decision that will expand access to contraception to communities who otherwise lack access.
Opill, the nonprescription daily birth control pill, is expected to be available in 2024, according to the pill’s manufacturer, Perrigo Company, based in Dublin, Ireland. The company has not yet said how much the oral pill will cost.
“When used as directed, daily oral contraception is safe and is expected to be more effective than currently available nonprescription contraceptive methods in preventing unintended pregnancy,” said Patrizia Cavazzoni, M.D., director of the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research in a statement.
As some states across the country continue to enact restrictive abortion laws — some as early as six weeks — conversations about reproductive health and access to contraceptives have grown more frequent. With the FDA approving a nonprescription birth control, advocates are hopeful that this move will allow underinsured and underserved communities to easily access the medication without having to see a doctor.
In a 2022 survey conducted by health policy research organization KFF, one in five underinsured females of reproductive age (18-49) said they had to stop using their contraceptive because they couldn’t afford it. For women with low-income, 17% said that cost was the main reason why they weren’t using their preferred method of contraceptives.
“While we know that increasing access to birth control is not a solution to the ongoing attacks on sexual and reproductive health and rights – we celebrate this historic moment for health equity, sexual health, and reproductive rights,” said Dr. Antoinette Marengo, chief medical officer at Planned Parenthood of the Pacific Southwest, in a statement.
“I have been a reproductive health care specialist for nearly two decades, and know that birth control access, as well as the ability to plan if and when to start a family, changes lives.”
In May, an independent panel of 17 health and scientific experts unanimously voted to recommend that the FDA approve the over-the-counter birth control pill. The panel debated the risks and benefits of the medication such as the effectiveness of an over-the-counter pill. The most common side effects of Opill include irregular bleeding, headaches, dizziness, nausea, increased appetite, abdominal pain, cramps or bloating. Opill only contains progestin, unlike other birth control medications that contain both progestins and estrogen.
“This first-ever approval of over-the-counter birth control is groundbreaking for those communities who have historically been marginalized – particularly communities of color, those living in rural areas, and those who may not live close by to health centers – and who too often face disproportionate hurdles to accessing the full spectrum of reproductive health care,” said Amanda E/J Morrison, co-founder and president of Julie, in an email.
Julie is an over-the-counter emergency contraceptive that was approved by the FDA last year, just one of the few morning after pills to receive over-the-counter approval.
“We need to make sure all contraception options are available to people so that they can choose the ones that are best for their lives and circumstances. This decision – just like the move to OTC emergency contraception before it – has the power to change people’s lives,” said Morrison.
This article is published as part of the Commonwealth Health Equity Reporting Fellowship.