July 14, 2023

Reproductive rights groups call ‘victory’ over FDA approval of over-the-counter birth control pill

Many reproductive health care advocates in New Mexico declared a victory when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced Thursday that a birth control pill will soon be available over the counter.

The news comes after months of uncertainty as the federal courts consider the future of the FDA’s approval of mifepristone, the first in a two-step regimen for abortion care. That decision is on pause for now and the U.S. Supreme Court is likely to consider the issue during its upcoming 2023-2024 session.

The over-the-counter birth control pill will be sold under the brand name Opill and is expected to become available by January 2024. Heather Smith, Bold Futures policy manager, said the news is a victory for public health, equity and evidence-based research.

“Now we will have an over-the-counter option. It will be on store shelves. It will increase accessibility for New Mexico residents, especially in rural areas,” Smith said.

An article published late last year in Contraception Journal found that nearly half of more than 700 respondents who identified as Latina/Latinx, Black, Indigenous, Asian-American, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, said they faced at least one challenge to obtaining birth control the previous year.

The cost of the pill has not been released publicly yet. Smith said she hopes it will be affordable. If it is, it could bring significant change for New Mexicans, particularly those in rural areas and for those who otherwise face barriers to reproductive health.

“We are thrilled with this decision. It can bring about transformative change. Folks can access the contraception they need without unnecessary barriers,” Smith said.

Krista Pietsch, spokesperson for Eastern New Mexico Rising, a reproductive advocacy group based in the eastern region of the state, called the FDA’s decision “a great thing.”

“Anything that decreases the barrier for protection, particularly for those of us in rural areas, particularly for OB-GYN access, it’s really exciting,” Pietsch said.

Pietsch has said that reproductive healthcare in eastern New Mexico is particularly lacking.

She also said having greater access to birth control is “the first line of defense” to prevent an unplanned pregnancy.

Advocates are saying greater accessibility will help young people, in particular. The pill has a 93 percent effectiveness rate.

“As a child who didn’t agree with their parents, I understand wanting to be able to live your own life safely and find support for your own behavior,” Pietsch said.

Marshall Martinez, executive director of Equality New Mexico, called the increased accessibility a “great step forward” for the LGBTQ community.

“Queer and trans people especially face skepticism and, even worse, stigma, when they need to access contraception, including birth control,” Martinez said.

Elaborating on the stigma LGBTQ individuals sometimes face when trying to access birth control, Martinez said it can lead to “a conversation having to explain way more about ourselves, our identities and our sexualities.” He said because LGBTQ individuals “deserve to access birth control without the additional stigma.”

Martinez said increasing accessibility for LGBTQ individuals to birth control in rural areas of New Mexico “will have an even bigger impact.”

“Every time a queer or trans person goes to the doctor, they have additional barriers,” Martinez said.

He said often, rural providers lack experience serving a large population of LGBTQ individuals, so the providers may be unprepared for questions about birth control from an LGBTQ patient.

Martinez said that can lead to some anxiety for LGBTQ individuals who may be wondering if they are the first queer or trans person to ask a provider about birth control.

Smith said that when talking about equity, having a birth control pill accessible as an over-the-counter option can improve not just racial and rural equity but also class equity.

“When talking about equity, it’s across the board. It will help all of those different barriers for folks,” Smith said.

Recent polls taken by different organizations have found that large majorities of women approve of over-the-counter birth control pills. One poll, taken last year by KFF, a nonprofit organization, found that 77 percent of women favored having an over-the-counter birth control pill option. 

When broken into demographics, 78 percent of Hispanic women said they favor an over-the-counter birth control pill option. Tara Mancini, director of public policy for Power to Decide, a national nonprofit organization, said that this has the potential to be a “game changer” in a state such as New Mexico where the majority of individuals are Hispanic.

It can also be helpful for undocumented individuals or teenagers who lack identification documentation to be able to access birth control, she said, because the FDA did not include an identification barrier to its ruling.

Mancini said that New Mexico already has improved access to birth control in recent years by making it possible for individuals to obtain a prescription through a pharmacist and also by allowing providers to write a six-month prescription for birth control.

But, Mancini cautioned that the FDA’s decision is not a “silver bullet.” There are four counties in New Mexico— Torrance, Catron, Mora and Harding— which are complete contraceptive deserts, meaning that there is not a single clinic that offers the full range of contraception.

Mancini said that having access to the full range of contraception is important because one single method is not always going to be right for every single person.

“It fills a need. It’s not a silver bullet for the whole country. But in a place like New Mexico, where the state is interested in expanding access for reproductive rights for its population and has laid down the groundwork over the years, this can help fill the gaps,” Mancini said.