Over-the-Counter Contraceptives: A Terrible Idea

By Susan E. Wills

December 21, 2012

A Catholic governor who describes himself as “an unapologetic pro-life Republican” recently announced his support in the Wall Street Journal for making oral contraceptives (OCs) available over-the-counter (OTC). He cited two reasons.

First, he thinks it would take the issue of birth control out of the political arena where, he claims, Democrats insulted Republicans by saying they’re against birth control and “demagogued” the issue during debates over the HHS contraceptive mandate.

The HHS mandate, you’ll recall, tramples on the religious freedom of Catholics, Catholic institutions and others who object to birth control, by forcing virtually every employer to provide all forms of birth control—including $1,000 IUDs—“free” in the health insurance plan they offer employees and their families. Surely he’s not suggesting that political leaders capitulate on matters of principle or policy simply to avoid insults?  

Second, the Governor claims making OCs available OTC will reduce the costs of healthcare and of OCs themselves, as women would no longer have to visit a doctor once a year to get a new prescription. But that annual visit saves lives. OCs are contraindicated for many women due to their increasing the risk of cancer, heart attacks and strokes. The visit may also be the only opportunity for doctors to test for and treat STDs. About sixty million Americans have an STD (including 40 percent of sexually-active teens) and 19 million new cases occur annually. Many STDs are asymptomatic and if not treated early can cause pelvic inflammatory disease, infertility and tubal pregnancies. Some strains of human papillomavirus, the most common STD—found in 25 percent of teens and 45 percent of people aged 20-24—cause genital warts; other strains cause cervical cancer.

OCs cost $9/month at the big discount chain stores. How much cheaper can they get? But consumer savings should not dictate policy any more than avoiding insults should.

The Governor states OCs “are safe” per the “research.” Really? The World Health Organization declared synthetic estrogen to be carcinogenic in humans, raising risks of breast and cervical cancer. OCs can also significantly increase the risk of blood clots that can lead to heart attacks, strokes and pulmonary embolisms.

Research shows that OCs are not very effective in preventing pregnancy, especially as used by teens: Almost half of low-income cohabiting teens using OCs will become pregnant within 12 months. True failure (i.e., pregnancy) rates were rarely admitted publicly, but now that very expensive long-acting reversible contraceptives (LARCs)—implants and IUDs—are available for “free” under the mandate, OC failure rates are openly discussed as justification for getting women to switch to the more effective LARCs … more effective mainly because of their significant abortifacient mode of action, by making the uterine lining so atrophied that the week-old human embryo is deprived of nutrients to survive, even if she succeeds in implanting there.

Research also shows that by increasing access to OCs, rates of unintended pregnancies and abortions do not decline. In Spain, for example, a 63 percent increase in contraceptive use between 1997 and 2007 was accompanied by a 108 percent increase in the abortion rate. Greater availability leads to more young singles becoming sexually active because they think they’re protected from the consequences. A Google search for “risk compensation” will show why.

Instead of basing public policy on insult-avoidance and reducing the price of a harmful product, wouldn’t it be refreshing for policy to be based on sound science and the true good of our citizens?

Susan Wills is Assistant Director for Education and Outreach, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities. To learn more about the bishops' pro-life activities, go to www.usccb.org/prolife.