Last year, California passed a new law allowing women to obtain birth control pills from their local pharmacy without a prescription, providing that the pharmacist in question has obtained adequate information about the woman’s medical history and the presence (or absence) of underlying health concerns.
Other than expediting a needlessly onerous process, the law also contributes to making the service far more equitable than ever before. Prior to the law’s passage, receiving a prescription for something as commonplace as the traditional birth control pill required women to schedule an appointment with a gynecologist — not a general practitioner or their regular doctor, but a specialist — and maintain this appointment annually for as long as they take the pill. It’s naturally reasonable to expect a doctor’s consent to be necessary to gain access to a drug — but compared to the existing list of easily obtained, over-the-counter medication, the birth control pill is hardly risky, having served millions of American women for over 50 years without any significant issues. And this service would not make birth control over-the-counter, but rather under the purview of a far more accessible medical practitioner. Moreover, this further contributes to a preexisting trend of the local pharmacy becoming a place of cheap and easy access to simple medical care, like checkups, flu shots and basic consultations.
But aside from questions of the medical validity of the law, it addresses issues far more commonplace, and increasingly widespread: the commodification of medical treatment and health education and the distribution of these commodities almost singularly among the upper-middle classes and the wealthy. With national healthcare under attack and public medical service programs in danger of massive cuts, access to consistent and specialized medical care is a luxury many women simply can’t afford (one of the many reasons national healthcare was so necessary in the first place — but that’s another conversation).
When it comes to a pill as tried and tested as average birth control, to require women of all socioeconomic backgrounds to pass an economic barrier to gain access is, plain and simple, inefficient and inequitable. Women should and must have access to medical services regardless of income; to state otherwise is to suggest the value of human health, and by extension, human life, can be quantified by a price tag. And for college-aged women struggling with financial burdens like tuition, educational materials, transportation and rent, removing barriers to basic health services like birth control is a necessary step in ensuring that they can continue to work toward their goals, graduate, and contribute their skills to a larger California — and nationwide — society.
However, while the law carries certain benefits, most Californian women won’t experience them simply because most are unaware that they are available. As simple as it seems, health education, especially among the lower-middle and lower classes, remains exceptionally poor — meaning many women are unaware that this is now a privilege available to them as state citizens. Moreover, the law was also not accompanied by a plan that would provide for how pharmacies would integrate these new measures into their existing managerial structures. One woman speaking to the Los Angeles Times said that she talked to her local pharmacist about the law, who told her they had yet to form their own policy to comply; another pharmacist told her they were unaware of the law entirely.
So, the question becomes: How can California hope to offer the women on its college campuses this service if it has not taken measures to phase in implementation to the wider group of pharmacies that populate the state? Luckily for USC students, the Engemann Student Health Center already offers students birth control pills and alternatives as well as the specialists necessary to gain access. This is not true for all of California’s campuses, particularly some CSUs and community colleges.
While this law is a necessary first step and represents movement in the right direction, college students should continue to demand equitable access to health care according to their rights as defined by state laws. In turn we should expect our representatives to listen to the outcry, work to support health education and stimulate and incentivize implementation so that access can be extended to those outside of the state’s wealthiest classes.