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Birth Control in Brief

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4 Minutes

contraceptive pill

As over-the-counter birth control becomes the hot topic of the US presidential race, we take a look at the law over the pond and closer to home.

Amongthe many issues facing both Republican and Democrat candidates ahead of the US elections, over-the-counter birth control has become one of the hottest topics in Washington. Estimates suggest that 70% of US citizens are now in favour of making birth control more easily accessible. Here in the UK, emergency contraception is currently available without a prescription but regular medication is not. Here's a brief snapshot of the history and law on both sides of the Atlantic.


A history of the pill

The contraceptive pill is considered by many to be one of the greatest scientific inventions of the 20th century. This tiny little tablet has had a rather huge impact on the lives of women across the globe. It was created by American biologist Dr Gregory Pincus in the 1950s and works by suppressing ovulation.

Pincus’ first version, tested on Haitian and Puerto Rican women, contained both synthetic oestrogen and progesterone. These mimic the body’s natural hormones to prevent the production of eggs. The combined contraceptive pill was the first contraceptive option for women that was discreet, effective and convenient. It was revolutionary in spurring women’s independence, both sexually and across wider society.

period delay medication

The swinging 60s: With this in mind it’s no surprise then that it was introduced on the NHS in the 60s, a time of liberation and free love. However, it was initially only available to married women; it didn’t become available for all women in the UK until seven years later.

Controversy in the US: In America, the roll-out of the pill was far more fraught. The contraceptive pill wasapproved by the FDA in 1960, but four years later it remained illegal in eight states. Despite this, there were still 6.5 million women on the pill in the US by 1965.

However, in 1969, after Barbara Seaman released ‘The Doctor’s Case Against the Pill’, which brought to light the many side effects of the pill – such as weight gain, loss of libido, blood clots, depression and stroke, popularity radically declined. By 1979 sales in the US dropped by 24%.

New and improved: As more research exposed the risks behind the pill, the original product was taken off the market by the FDA in 1988. A new version became available, with reduced risk – most notably, a decreased risk of ovarian cancer as well a number of other health benefits. From then on the pill was also prescribed to treat acne.

Further developments have been made since then, including a new pill in the US that eliminates menstrual periods as it is taken 365 days a year and progesterone only pill. Alongside this, there are a number of other prescriptions available for managing a woman's menstrual cycle, including period delay medication.

Over-the-counter vs prescribed: Today more than 3.5 million women in the UK use some form of contraceptive pill and each of them receive it via the prescription of a doctor. Women can’t yet receive the pill from over-the-counter chemists.

The same is the case in America but that could soon change. The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommended the sale of the pill without prescription in 2012 and it’s been picked up by politicians on both sides of the coin.

For many, behind the counter equals behind the times. The reasoning behind this is that by making it more widely and more easily available, its use will increase and unwanted pregnancy will decrease. For those women unable to attend doctor’s appointments to request a prescription, for reasons from discretion to religion or insurance, a move to over-the-counter availability could be as revolutionary as the pill first was itself. Watch this space as the presidential race unfolds.