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Doctors back over-the-counter birth control pills

WASHINGTON — No prescription or doctor’s exam needed: The nation’s largest group of obstetricians and gynecologists says birth control pills should be sold over the counter, like condoms.

Tuesday’s surprise opinion from these gatekeepers of contraception could boost longtime efforts by women’s advocates to make the pill more accessible.

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But no one expects the pill to be sold without a prescription any time soon: A company would have to seek government permission first, and it is not clear if any are considering it. Plus there are big questions about what such a move would mean for many women’s wallets if it were no longer covered by insurance.

Still, momentum may be building.

Already, anyone 17 or older does not need to see a doctor before buying the morning-after pill — a higher-dose version of regular birth control that can prevent pregnancy if taken shortly after unprotected sex. Earlier this year, the Food and Drug Administration held a meeting to gather ideas about how to sell regular oral contraceptives without a prescription, too.

Now the influential American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists is declaring it is safe to sell the pill that way.

Why would doctors who make money from women’s yearly visits for a birth-control prescription advocate giving that up?

Half of the nation’s pregnancies every year are unintended, a rate that has not changed in 20 years — and easier access to birth control pills could help, said Dr. Kavita Nanda, an OB/GYN who coauthored the opinion for the doctors group.

‘‘It’s unfortunate that in this country where we have all these contraceptive methods available, unintended pregnancy is still a major public health problem,’’ said Nanda, a scientist with the North Carolina nonprofit FHI 360, formerly known as Family Health International.

Many women have trouble affording a doctor’s visit, or getting an appointment in time when their pills are running low — which can lead to skipped doses, Nanda added.

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