Over-the-counter birth control? Drugmaker seeks FDA approval

Matthew Perrone Ap Health Writer
Monday, July 11, 2022

WASHINGTON (AP) — For the first time, a pharmaceutical company has asked for permission to sell a birth control pill over the counter in the U.S.

HRA Pharma’s application on Monday sets up a highstakes decision for health regulators amid legal and political battles over women’s reproductive health. The company says the timing was unrelated to the Supreme Court’s recent decision overturning Roe v. Wade.

Hormone-based pills have long been the most common form of birth control in the U.S., used by millions of women since the 1960s. They have always required a prescription, generally so health professionals can screen for conditions that raise the risk of rare, but dangerous, blood clots.

The French drugmaker’s application compiles years of research intended to convince the Food and Drug Administration that women can safely screen themselves for those risks and use the pill effectively.

“For a product that has been available for the last 50 years, that has been used safely by millions of women, we thought it was time to make it more available,” said Frederique Welgryn, HRA’s chief strategy officer.

An FDA approval could come next year and would only apply to HRA’s pill, which would be sold under its original brand name, Opill. The company acquired the decades-old drug from Pfizer in 2014, but it's not currently marketed in the U.S.

Reproductive rights advocates want to see other prescription contraceptives move over the counter and, eventually, for abortion pills to do the same.

That potential for a precedent-setting decision once again places the FDA under an intense political spotlight.

Late last year, the agency was condemned by abortion opponents and praised by women's rights advocates when it loosened access to abortion pills. The agency faced similar political pressures in 2006 when it approved over-the-counter use of the emergency contraception pill Plan B.

Many conservative groups stress they are only interested in curtailing abortion, and state bans often explicitly exclude contraception.

Even before Monday’s announcement, Democratic lawmakers were calling on the FDA to swiftly consider any such requests.

“We urge FDA to review applications for over-the-counter birth control pills without delay and based solely on the data,” said more than 50 members of the House's Pro-Choice Caucus in a March letter.

Many common medications have made the switch from behind the pharmacy counter, including drugs for pain relief, heartburn and allergies.

In each case, companies must show that consumers can understand the drug's labeling, evaluate its risks and use it safely and effectively without professional supervision. HRA spent seven years conducting the FDA-required studies, including a trial that followed 1,000 women taking its pill for six months.

Behind the company’s efforts is a coalition of women’s health researchers and advocates who have worked for nearly two decades to make contraceptives more accessible, especially to groups with less access to health care.

The Oral Contraceptives Over-the-Counter Working Group helped fund some of HRA’s research and is mobilizing support behind a media campaign dubbed Free the Pill.

“A lot of our research has been about making the case to help inspire and support a company to take this work on,” said Kelly Blanchard, president of Ibis Reproductive Health, a group member that supports abortion and contraceptive access.

Birth control pills are available without a prescription across much of South America, Asia and Africa. Last year, Parisbased HRA won U.K. approval for the first birth control pill available there without a prescription.

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