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Mexican Birth Control Pills Attract Buyers
email this pageprint this pageemail usElizabeth Allen & Lynn Brezosky - San Antonio Express-News
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April 16, 2010

Women living along the United States-Mexico border routinely buy their birth control pills in Mexico, said a study released Thursday, and if they could buy them over the counter in the U.S., a lot more women would — and should, according to the study's authors.

“This seems to be a viable and good option,” said Joseph Potter, a University of Texas demographer and one study author, “and what's more, it would be a better option if you didn't have to cross the border.”

Birth control pills in the U.S. are available by prescription, normally after a woman gets a Pap smear. That evolved from the early days of oral contraceptives, when little was known about their long-term effects, said Dr. Daniel Grossman of Ibis Reproductive Health, another study author.

“Now we've got almost 50 years of data about how safe hormone-based birth control is,” Grossman said.

“In some ways our profession has been holding birth control hostage, where women come in and pay that annual ransom of getting that Pap smear,” he said. “We don't make men get testicular exams before they get condoms, even though testicular screening and testing are important health measures. They're not linked.”

But Dr. Kristen Plastino, an associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Texas Health Science Center, said it's important for a woman to talk to her doctor about what kind of contraception would be best.

“It's also a reminder: Don't forget about yourself,” she said. “Sometimes I am the only doctor these women see all year. That's where I screen and see that their blood pressure's high.”

If cost is a driver, she added, low-cost and free contraception is available in the U.S.

The study, published Thursday on the Web site of the American Journal of Public Health, followed 1,046 El Paso women in two groups for nine months. One group got their pills at Juarez pharmacies, while the other obtained them from family planning clinics in El Paso. Most in the study were low-income, and most of them were uninsured.

The women who crossed to buy their pills cited convenience and the ability to send a friend if necessary. They were older and more likely to have been born in Mexico. The women who used U.S. clinics were more educated and more likely to have received federal public assistance.

Women who crossed for their pills said they also worried about being stopped by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers at the border.

“They can be stopped,” U.S. Food and Drug Administration spokeswoman Sylvia Gaytan said. While birth control is not on the Drug Enforcement Administration list of controlled substances, the officer has the discretion to determine if the medication fits under a “personal guidance” rule that allows people to import certain drugs if they can prove personal need.

The increasing amount of drug-related violence in Mexico may have increased barriers to women who were getting their pills there.

Alonzo Gonzalez, a pharmacist in Matamoros, Mexico, across the border from Brownsville, said he used to have a steady flow of women and teenage girls crossing the border to buy contraceptives at about a third of the U.S. price. But he said news of the drug violence plaguing northern Mexico and State Department warnings against travel there had put a damper on the trade.

There's more information to mine from the data, Grossman said, including the frequency of Pap smears among women who get their pills in Mexico.

Nevertheless, Grossman acknowledged, he went into the study believing over-the-counter birth control pills are a good thing.

“I think we all kind of went into it with our own different biases,” he said. “I don't think it affected the results we got.”

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the included information for research and educational purposes • m3 © 2009 BanderasNews ® all rights reserved • carpe aestus