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Holding Birth Control Hostage

Doctors still require women to submit to cancer screenings and pelvic exams to get birth control pills. Scientists say that shouldn't happen.

| Mon Apr. 30, 2012 5:00 AM EDT

There is one way to change the system: Make the Pill an over-the-counter (OTC) drug. If women could get birth control pills from a pharmacy, like they do in other countries, and could decide for themselves whether they should have a pelvic exam every year, the country could experience serious health care savings. Unnecessary health care treatment overall is estimated to cost at least $158 billion a year.

The FDA has been considering making the Pill available without a prescription at least since 1993. But with the recent debates about health care reform and the contraceptive mandate in the new health care law, the issue has come to the forefront again with new urgency. The Pill is one of the safest regularly used drugs on the market. Not surprisingly, though, the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists hasn't signed on to the campaign, no doubt because of the prevailing view in the profession that if women could get their pills without a prescription, they wouldn't come in for annual checkups.

Prominent ob-gyns Michael Cackovic and Michael Paidas, writing in the journal Contemporary OB/GYN, reflected this view in a 2008 op-ed against the OTC pill, writing, "women who [get] OTC pills could have little motivation for annual exams, sexually transmitted infection screening or Pap smears, which could possibly manifest as less screening for cervical cancer."

Theirs is a common and paternalistic view of women patients. After all, men are never required to, say, have a colonoscopy as a condition of getting blood pressure medication, Viagra, or even a vasectomy, even though men are much worse about going to the doctor and getting checkups than women are.

Women don't need to have their birth control pills held hostage to get needed cancer screenings. That's not just my opinion. There's hard data to prove it. In many places in the world, the pill is already available over the counter, so some smart researchers have taken a look at the behavior of women who get it that way.

Dr. Daniel Grossman, an ob-gyn and senior associate at Ibis Reproductive Health, coordinates a working group pushing to make the Pill available without a prescription. With colleagues at the University of Texas, Grossman has studied women in Texas who are able to get the Pill from pharmacies in Mexico without a prescription. As it turns out, the women who make the trip, he says, "had very high rates of getting all the preventive screening tests, higher than the national average." Not only that, but women who got their pills without the hassle of an exam were much more likely to stay on the Pill continuously, a factor that research shows is directly related to fewer abortions and unplanned pregnancies.

Still, the Pill wasn't going to be available over the counter soon enough to solve my problem. Fortunately, I discovered that there is one health care provider that's a pioneer in disconnecting birth control pills from mandatory pelvic exams: Planned Parenthood. So I went there.

Passing through the bullet-proof, bomb-proof entrance to the DC clinic was a little unnerving; while I sat in the waiting room watching The View with a bunch of young women and solo men, I got slightly paranoid about errant bullets or bombs from anti-abortion nuts. But the visit turned out to be painless. After I filled out a lot of paperwork asking about my medical history, a nurse took my blood pressure—which, unlike a pelvic exam, is actually related to the potential risks of the Pill—asked me some questions about my history, and then wrote me a prescription. And unlike my doctor, she even offered to write it so that I could get three packs at a time instead of one.

Without insurance, the visit would cost $130, which isn't cheap, but it's still likely to be much cheaper than a full-on pelvic exam and all the related lab work. (Planned Parenthood also charges on a sliding scale, so the cost can be less depending on income.) It was worth it, mainly because I got my prescription without having to take my clothes off. And in a year, I might go back for a checkup with a doctor. But if I do, it will be because I think it's the right thing to do, not because I don't have a choice.

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