In the United States, unintended pregnancies remain startlingly common. 83 percent of all pregnancies for women aged 18 and 19, and 64 percent of pregnancies for women aged 20 to 24, are unplanned. The advent of hormonal birth control revolutionized family planning because it offers a highly effective and safe method to prevent pregnancy. But still, unnecessary regulatory barriers hinder birth control access for the majority of women.

Federal legislation introduced last week by Senators Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, and Cory Gardner, R-Colo., would take crucial steps toward removing these barriers and expanding access to safe and effective contraception.

TheAllow Women Greater Access to Safe and Effective Contraception Act (S. 930) would pave the way for birth control to be sold over-the-counter, without a prescription, and would make it easier for women to save for their healthcare needs by allowing them to use health and flexible savings account funds to buy over-the-counter drugs.

This bill would give women more control over their reproductive health by making it easier to obtain the most popular form of birth control. Currently, 25 percent of women who use contraception use the pill as their preferred method, and many women have reported that they would use hormonal birth control if it were available over the counter.

The Ernst and Gardner bill could also lessen the taxpayer burden associated with unintended pregnancies. Public insurance programs paid for 68 percent of the estimated 1.5 million unintended births in the United States in 2010. In that year, taxpayers funded $21 billion in medical costs associated with pregnancies. By freeing the birth control market, Congress could drastically reduce the need for this government spending.

Currently, in the vast majority of states, women must obtain a prescription for birth control from their physician before getting it filled at a pharmacy. This imposes a host of dilemmas on women, including limited access to physicians, consultation costs and time off from work. The issues with this outdated physician-access-only model are many, and the medical community agrees that hormonal birth control is perfectly safe for over-the-counter status. While some states have taken steps to remedy this problem by allowing pharmacists to prescribe birth control, 40 states still uphold the physician-access-only model.

The Allow Women Greater Access to Safe and Effective Contraception Act would encourage the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to take the first step toward making birth control readily available over-the-counter. The FDA has already approved emergency hormonal contraception for over-the-counter status, and regular hormonal birth control contains the same formula in lower doses.

There remains more to be done to expand access to contraception and reduce the public health burden associated with unintended pregnancies. But Sens. Ernst and Gardner’s bill would go a long way in the right direction toward more sensible birth control policy.,