SALT LAKE CITY – Women in conservative Utah will soon be able to get birth control directly from a pharmacist rather than visiting a doctor each time they want to obtain or renew a prescription, a move taken by only a few other states, many of them liberal.
Republican Gov. Gary Herbert signed a measure into law Tuesday allowing those 18 and older to get pills, the patch and some other contraceptive devices, putting Utah in line with a handful of other states that have passed similar laws, including California, Colorado and Oregon.
“I think five years ago, it wouldn’t have passed, but I think the world and Utah is changing,” Republican state Sen. Todd Weiler, who sponsored the measure, said Wednesday. “People are more accepting of the fact that these things make sense and they actually save the state money.”
Public health officials say studies have shown that unplanned births can lead to more money being spent on social programs like Medicaid, which covers the costs of about one-third of all births in the state.
Utah is a Republican-dominated state where most lawmakers and an estimated 60 percent of residents are members of the Mormon church. While the church generally opposes abortion, birth control is treated differently.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints encourages married couples to have children but says specific birth control decisions are private between a husband and wife. While the church is against elective abortions, there are some circumstances where it can be permissible.
The new law, which unanimously passed the Legislature, takes effect May 8. It will require women to first fill out a form assessing their risks of taking birth control before getting the medication. They also will be required to check in with a doctor every two years to keep getting contraception.
The measure allows pharmacists to issue the birth control under a standing prescription likely issued by a health department doctor – similar to an order the state issued in 2016 allowing pharmacists to distribute an opioid anti-overdose drug over the counter.
Because women will still technically be obtaining birth control under a prescription, insurers will need to cover it, said University of Utah pharmacy graduate student Wilson Pace, who drafted the measure as a school project. Weiler said he proposed the legislation at Pace’s suggestion.
Pace said Wednesday that if you told him six months ago the proposal would sail through the Utah Legislature, he would have been shocked.
“For our state especially,” he said. “We haven’t historically always been the most progressive state.”
Medical groups, including the Utah Medical Association and Utah Nurses Association, spoke in support of the birth control measure.
Kathleen Kaufman with the nurses association told lawmakers that nurse practitioners said the legislation would particularly help women living in rural areas who may not be able to easily visit doctors.
On a national level, U.S. Rep. Mia Love, a Utah Republican, has introduced legislation in Congress that would allow women to get birth control over the counter. Love has said her proposal, which has not yet had a hearing, gives women more access and more choices when it comes to family planning.
Utah’s birth control measure got the governor’s approval the same day he signed another proposal that could cover the costs of intrauterine devices and other family planning assistance for low-income women.
Republican Rep. Ray Ward, who sponsored that measure, said the state was one of seven that didn’t offer family planning coverage for the poor.