At Last, an Over-the-Counter Birth Control Pill

Photograph Source: Bryancalabro – CC BY-SA 3.0

In this era of beleaguered feminism and receding female rights, anything that contributes to a woman, rather than the state, controlling her own body is welcome. Because currently women are losing rights – not just the absence of Roe v. Wade, but possibly the right to out-of-state travel during pregnancy, the right to decent maternal care and collection of medical pregnancy statistics (now banned in Idaho, a state that apparently despises women) and, in some supposedly left-wing quarters, even the right to be called a woman. So the political right hates women, while a segment of the left denies women even exist.

But the female population got some news to cheer about July 13. That’s when the FDA approved a first-time ever over-the-counter birth control pill. This was a long time coming. And it cannot be overstated how excellent this development is, especially for young women. It should exponentially decrease the number of unwanted pregnancies – something not considered by political Neanderthals like supreme court justice Clarence Thomas, who has threatened to overturn the right to contraception.

Of course, the FDA approval was denounced by the U.S. Conference of Busybodies, oh, I meant Bishops, but aside from them and troglodytes like Thomas, who could this medical advance possibly bother? It facilitates personal decisions about private matters. Something the Budinsky supreme court may not like, but you’d think they’d appreciate the decline in abortions this news portends. Somehow, right-wing fanatics never seem to consider that very obvious, common-sense advantage of widely accessible, cheap contraception. I guess those puritans are too annoyed by the prospect of young women having sex without disastrous consequences.

There’s no doubt the “free love” of the 1960s and ‘70s sexual revolution was great for men, while, as some feminists argue, functioning to oppress women, whose interests in this matter were not exactly the same as their male partners. Free love was, primarily, a revolution for men, but many of its results are here to stay, and the normalcy of widespread premarital sex is one of them. So is long-term cohabiting without marriage. Unfortunately making those sexual revolution results less oppressive for women never kept pace. Access to contraception did not expand as many expected it would, and so abortion because a form of birth control. That’s on the way out now, so it’s lucky indeed that finally a contraceptive pill without a prescription will be on the market. The ideology that male promiscuity is the human norm may have fewer adherents now than it did in 1967 or ‘72, but for those unmarried women who live normal 21st century lives, the contraception market has finally caught up with their sexual reality.

The new pill, Opill, means the U.S. “will join about 100 other nations that allow the sale of nonprescription birth control pills,” the Washington Post reported July 13. It will be available in early 2024 and have no age restriction, while the company that produces it, Perrigo, says it aims to keep the drug affordable. Opill contains only a synthetic progesterone. “It works by thickening cervical mucus to inhibit sperm and suppressing ovulation. Opill does not contain a synthetic form of the hormone estrogen.”

As the New York Times reported July 13, this new pill is “more effective at preventing pregnancy than condoms, spermicides and other nonprescription methods.” It will be available in stores and online. Regarding affordability, Perrigo will “have a consumer assistance program to provide the pill at no cost to some women.” Since over three quarters of women of childbearing age responded to a survey last year that they wanted an over-the-counter pill, Perrigo’s concern about cost is wise. “Many anti-abortion groups have declined to criticize over-the-counter birth control,” the Times noted.

Opill is roughly 98 percent effective, CNN reported July 21, and must be taken at the same time every day. “Opill is not emergency contraception or abortion medication,” CNN observed, thus hopefully heading off any right-to-life temper-tantrums. From published descriptions of how Opill works suppressing ovulation, it is not “abortifacient” contraception. That’s contraception that causes loss of the zygote and thus the fury of anti-abortion absolutists.

Though Opill lacks estrogen, it still inhibits ovulation and blocks sperm – which is the contraceptive goal of those who do not want a pill to become a political football. Progesterone-only pills are less effective at blocking conception, but Opill reportedly does well in this department. Anti-abortion opposition to contraception, especially the IUD, focused for years on it permitting fertilization, when in fact it works mainly by preventing it. According to a 1990 National Institutes of Health paper, “Are contraceptives abortifacient?” the most widely available contraceptives – which includes the pill – are NOT abortifacient. Neither is some injectable birth control.

Globally, women still remain second-class human beings. Their labor is worth less than men’s, and in a world that values war, they have less – fortunately – to add to this priority than men do. Reactionaries believe this is as it should be, that men fight and women bear children, but that very limited, simplistic view ignores the large cohort of men horrified by the idea of fighting, and the equally enormous number of women bored by nurturing. We can either pretend they don’t exist in a commitment to a two-dimensional dichotomy or instead welcome the more interesting and wildly variegated reality of human phenomena. It may be true that those who love to fight are predominately men, while those who bear children are entirely women, but one of the benefits of that sexual revolution decades ago was to broaden female horizons and, to state the obvious, open up new futures, vocations and careers to women.

All of which can be jeopardized for individual women by one, unplanned pregnancy. Women who have the means and decide, out of love, to withdraw from the labor market to raise kids, usually pay a hefty price in terms of future employability. With this in mind, young, sexually active women who do not want children, need all the contraceptive help they can get. In this regard, the U.S. is finally catching up to the rest of the world. A simple, over-the-counter contraceptive pill is here. For young, American women, it is a game-changer.

Eve Ottenberg is a novelist and journalist. Her latest book is Busybody. She can be reached at her website.