When I got my period for the first time in sixth grade, my mom spread the news to the rest of my extended Dominican family without asking me or giving me a warning. While I was scared and mortified by the announcement of the arrival of my menstruation and new fertility, my family saw it as a source of conversation. However, there was no discussion around sex education or birth control.
Free the Pill is a campaign created to educate and engage the public about the benefits of having access to over-the-counter (OTC) birth control in the US. The campaign doesn't just support OTC birth control; it also advocates for it to be affordable, covered by insurance, and available to people of all ages. The move to bring birth-control pills over the counter would expand contraceptive access across the country — something I could have used when I was ready to get birth control. Now, with the Supreme Court potentially rolling back abortion access nationwide, we need access to this critical care more than ever. As we mark Free the Pill Day on May 9, we're find ourselves closer to an over-the-counter birth-control pill, with an application expected to be submitted to the FDA this year.
My mom found out I had sex after getting a bill from our insurance company for a Planned Parenthood appointment for a birth-control prescription and wellness exam. She once again inserted herself into my sex life, asking me why I had made an appointment in the first place. This was an appointment I'd made three different times before finally going in, because I was holding onto the stigma surrounding it and what others would think. She told me that I had no self-respect, because having sex before marriage was a cause of shame in our family. Her two reactions were deeply conflicting, but the message was clear: I should be proud that I was now able to get pregnant, but if I had sex and wanted to be in control of my decisions, I shouldn't expect support.
I know I'm not the only Latinx person who has grown up with similar messages about traditional family roles, parenting, and sex. According to studies, many of us have similar experiences when it comes to the messages we receive at home, with our families playing an important role in our sexual- and reproductive-health behaviors. In spite of this, many young Latinx people are making their own decisions. No matter what each of us decides with regard to when or if to become pregnant, we should have the freedom to make decisions about our own bodies with dignity, respect, and privacy. We need insurance coverage so that birth control is affordable, and we need providers who respect our decisions. We should be consulted before our sexual- and reproductive-health milestones and activities are announced, and birth-control pills should be available over the counter so that privacy, discretion, and autonomy can be maintained.
Making birth-control pills available over the counter, affordable, and not subject to age restrictions would give young Latinx folks another option to prevent pregnancy, remove barriers that create delays, and allow us more control over our sexual health. Research shows that requiring a prescription makes it harder for people to obtain and consistently use birth-control pills not only in the practical sense — such as needing parental consent if you're a young person — but because of the stigma surrounding it. I turned my quest for birth-control pills into a positive experience and began to educate myself on sexual- and reproductive-health and rights. Educating myself turned into a passion that led to a career working in sexual and reproductive health, rights, and justice and ensuring access to a full range of reproductive-health services for all.
Through my work on the Free the Pill team, operated by Ibis Reproductive Health, I have learned that there are too many barriers to accessing birth-control pills, especially for the Latinx community. While 97 percent of Latinas use birth control at some point, we are also more likely than our white counterparts to be uninsured and, therefore, less likely to be able to afford a visit to the doctor for a prescription. At Free the Pill, we advocate for over-the-counter birth-control pills and raise awareness for the barriers to access — such as cost, insurance coverage, and taking time off work or school for a doctor's appointment. Many studies, including a study assessing interest in over-the-counter access, have shown that people want better access to sexual- and reproductive-health products that remove barriers and allow privacy when it comes to sexual-health decisions.
When I started this work, I had to have many conversations with my parents — they didn't understand what the sexual and reproductive field was or why I wanted to be a part of it. I wanted to educate my parents on this work not because I felt that I had to, but because I felt that it was important to educate the people in my life who had initially instilled the shame and fear I felt when I first began having sex. Educating my parents and seeing them slowly open up through continued conversations made me feel less ashamed about my sexual journey and gave me hope that parents in the Latinx community can be open and adapt. With access to reproductive healthcare — especially abortion — on the line, it's important that we all have these conversations with our friends and family.
Through my work, I can use my voice in my community to advocate for more access so that other young folks might hear someone like themselves tell them that they're OK, and that there is no shame in seeking birth control or caring about your reproductive health. And I'll continue working on the logistical barriers that keep birth control out of reach by ensuring that we can get over-the-counter birth control soon. Because, at the end of the day, everyone deserves to feel good about their reproductive-health decisions and have access to the products they need to keep them healthy.
Jessica Sanchez (she/her) currently works as a project coordinator for Ibis Reproductive Health in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and organizes on behalf of the Free the Pill campaign.