Under the new law, pharmacists can provide oral, transdermal, or vaginal contraceptives —from birth control pills to hormonal patches to vaginal rings — without a prescription. (Getty Images)
For years, Dr. Maria Sophocles has visited the Statehouse in Trenton to speak with lawmakers about a bill that would make birth control pills available to buy over the counter.
Sophocles, a Princeton gynecologist and surgeon who has been practicing medicine for over 27 years, said she spoke in rooms filled mostly with men, some of whom suggested telling women to have less sex or use outdated forms of birth control, like diaphragms.
“We had a lot of going back and persisting and persisting and helping legislators understand that you can’t have a solution that isn’t viable,” she said. “We had to help them understand this is really the best solution to helping women who want control over their reproductive lives.”
On Friday, Gov. Phil Murphy signed the bill into law, and soon New Jerseyans will be able to get contraception like birth control pills without having to visit their doctor for a prescription. The measure was first introduced in 2015.
“We have finally freed the pill,” Sen. Shirley Turner (D-Mercer), who sponsored the legislation, said Friday before Murphy signed it into law.
Under the new law, pharmacists can provide oral, transdermal, or vaginal contraceptives —from birth control pills to hormonal patches to vaginal rings — without a prescription. It will take effect in about four months.
Pharmacists will be required to undergo training offered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and people seeking contraceptives will have to fill out a questionnaire issued by the state Department of Health that will be used to screen for risks and will be retained as a health record.
The law also mandates the state Department of Health to create a public awareness campaign to spread the word that eligible contraceptives are now available without a prescription.
New Jersey will join 21 other states and more than 100 countries that have legalized prescription-free birth control pills. Sophocles said the law is long overdue and likely gained some momentum after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in the summer.
“It was a no-brainer then, and it’s a no-brainer now,” she said.
A November study by the Society of Family Planning found legal abortions rose 7% in New Jersey since the overturning of Roe v. Wade, the sixth-highest increase in the nation.
The birth control bill passed both chambers of the Legislature in late December, with some Republicans crossing the aisle in support.
Turner on Friday said the law “advances women’s health care by eliminating the middleman.” Finding a doctor and making an appointment to get a prescription is a hurdle for many women, she said.
This burden, Sophocles said, is shouldered by low-income women who are already at a higher risk of seeking an abortion and face barriers trying to get one. Some people don’t have the money for a yearly copay or to take transportation to get to the doctor’s office, she said.
“This law is not only about reproductive justice, it’s about economic justice,” Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-12) said at Friday’s signing ceremony.
Low-income families are less likely to receive preventative care and more likely to skip medical appointments because of cost, according to the Center for American Progress.
Birth control is also not only used for contraceptive reasons but can also be used to manage menstruation or endometriosis.
Sophocles called the new law a win for both the pro-choice and pro-life communities, saying on one side, it makes it easier to obtain birth control, and on the other, it will likely lead to fewer abortions because more women can avoid unwanted pregnancies.
“I feel it’s a bipartisan win. It’s not a political win. It’s a win for humans and for health care,” she said.
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