Can Contraceptives be Vegan? Important Considerations for Vegan Patients

The Vegan Society defines veganism as “a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose”. Since veganism extends beyond just a diet for avoiding animal products, awareness of medication ingredients is also a component of this lifestyle, and patients may be curious at to where their contraceptives fit in.

Potential Uncertainties in Contraceptives

Two inactive ingredients commonly found in hormonal contraceptives which could be considered problematic for vegans are lactose and magnesium stearate. Lactose can act as a filler, a diligent powder, or as an acid in medications and magnesium stearate acts as a lubricant during tablet processing and improves medication solubility. The source of these ingredients, and the status of whether they are vegan can be cloudy. Traditionally, lactose is derived from cow’s milk via bovine rennet extraction, but it can also be produced synthetically. Similarly, magnesium stearate is typically rendered from the fat of cows, pigs, and sheep, however it can now be produced from vegetable matter. Although these ingredients can be found on the medication label, their source is not stated.

Authors of The BMJ article, Why Can’t All Drugs Be Vegetarian? found that differentiation between vegetarian and non-vegetarian lactose was poor as materials involved and the process of manufacturing was often not available. Upon contacting manufactures of lactose-containing products, they found there was uncertainty as to whether medications were suitable for vegetarians or vegans. Because of this, the authors point to clearer labeling requirements as a necessity for understanding animal content in medications.

Patient Considerations

If a patient feels that their personal definition of veganism involves avoiding ingredients such as lactose in their hormonal contraceptives, there are alternatives contraceptive options such as condoms (look for non-latex brands such as Glyde and Sir Richard’s), IUDs, the Ortho Evra patch, vaginal rings, the implant, or the Depo-Provera injection. However, it is important to note that hormones themselves are also often derived from animals. Additionally, all products, even the ones made without animal-sourced ingredients, are tested on animal subjects before they can progress to human testing and make it to market.

So, can a patient use contraceptives and still be considered vegan? The Vegan Society recommends avoiding medications that contain animal products but also re-emphasizes the ‘as far as practical and possible’ portion of their definition for what it means to be vegan. Since all oral contraceptives currently available contain lactose, most would agree that taking them falls under that category as there is no practical way that they can be completely vegan. “Sometimes, you may have no alternative to taking prescribed medication. Looking after yourself and other people enables you to be an effective advocate for veganism,” says The Vegan Society.

The Pharmacist’s Role

Lastly, the Vegan Society also reminds patients to “open up a conversation with your pharmacist or doctor” in regard to discussing the intersection of medications and veganism, and providers need to be prepared to have these conversations too. Initiating dialogue with patients about their dietary and lifestyle preferences can help with understanding what contraceptive methods they feel most comfortable and confident using and fitting into their vegan lifestyle. Pharmacists are in an optimal position to discuss the options relevant to veganism with patients by being knowledgeable about animal testing as well as active and inactive ingredients and their sources. Being proactive and having these conversations could prevent patients from stopping or changing medications that they feel do not align with their lifestyle, while helping improve adherence and satisfaction.

References:

  1. Tatham , Kate, and Kinesh Patel. “Why Can’t All Drugs Be Vegetarian?” BMJ, vol. 348, 8 Feb. 2014, pp. 18–20., (link).
  2. McKie, Joshua, and Sue Gough . “Is There a Lactose-Free Oral Contraceptive?” UK Medicines Information, 3 Aug. 2016, (link).
  3. Fry, Samantha. “Is My Medication Vegan?” The Vegan Society, 13 Oct. 2017, (link).
  4. “List of Animal-Free Medications.” The Vegan Society, (link).
  5. “Definition of Veganism.” The Vegan Society, (link).
  6. Barclay, Eliza. “Is Your Medicine Vegan? Probably Not.” NPR, NPR, 15 Mar. 2013, (link).

About the Author

Niamh O’Grady, PharmD Candidate, is a pharmacy student in the Class of 2021 at the University of California San Francisco School of Pharmacy

Reviewed by Breanna Failla, PharmD Candidate and Brooke Griffin, PharmD, BCACP

Contraception During COVID-19: Pharmacy Best Practices

Pharmacists should not allow postponed or cancelled appointments to keep patients from accessing birth control. It’s important that patients understand how their pharmacy can continue to meet their contraceptive needs during the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic.

Pharmacists should inform patients that even though clinics and providers’ offices might be closed, their pharmacy is still able to facilitate refills, provide emergency contraception, and, in some states, prescribe hormonal contraception.

The following tips can help ensure your pharmacy is meeting patients’ contraceptive needs during COVID-19, while keeping your patients and pharmacy staff safe.

1. Encourage Contactless Communications and Dispensing 

Prevent patients from missing doses or going without contraception by preemptively contacting them via texts, emails, and calls to assess their needs. Encourage patients to utilize contactless communication to get in touch with the pharmacy for prescriptions or other items they want to order.

Pharmacies can provide contactless contraceptive care during COVID-19 by encouraging patients to obtain birth control prescriptions and products via mail, drive-through, or curbside pick-up services.


2. Promote and Supply Over-the-Counter Products

Visits to the pharmacy may be very limited for patients because of stay-at-home orders, social distancing, and other COVID-19-related barriers. Preemptively supplying prescriptions for emergency contraception can avert out of pocket costs while mitigating stress for patients that experience method failure and are unable to access the pharmacy in a timely manner.2 Encourage patients to have a pregnancy test on hand, in addition to over-the-counter contraceptive options, to ensure that patients’ contraceptive needs are met when routine visits to the pharmacy are not feasible.


3. Optimize Prescriptions and Anticipate Patient Needs

To maintain social distancing and the health of patients and employees, encourage providers to transmit new prescriptions electronically or via telephone.

Prescriptions for birth control should include maximum quantities and refills for a full year’s supply.2 Some states require health plans to cover dispensing a 12-month supply of birth control.3 Dispense the maximum amount allowed by the patient’s insurance and share the cash price if a patient desires paying out-of-pocket to limit visits to the pharmacy or clinic.

Pharmacy staff can proactively review patients’ profiles to anticipate upcoming refills and ensure the pharmacy’s birth control inventory is adequate to fulfill patient needs.

Check with your state’s COVID-19 pharmacy executive orders to ensure permitted emergency refills are being authorized.


4. Adapt Pharmacist Prescribing

Utilize Telehealth for Birth Control Visits

Patients are turning to telehealth services to access contraception during COVID-19. Transitioning your contraception service to telehealth wherever possible will ensure continuity of care while protecting the health and safety of patients and employees. Pharmacists can utilize telehealth to initiate contraception, assess and switch current methods, and adjust therapy as needed.

Due to COVID-19, some telehealth HIPAA regulations have loosened and health insurance plans are beginning to cover telehealth services.

Offer Methods that Don’t Require Blood Pressure Screening

Encourage patients to consider a progestin-only contraceptive if they’re unable to visit the pharmacy for a blood pressure screening.

Progestin-only contraceptive methods do not require a blood pressure screening in order to be safely prescribed, making them a feasible option when prescribing birth control via telehealth. Progestin-only options that can be prescribed by pharmacists and dispensed at the pharmacy include progestin-only pills (containing norethindrone or drospirenone) and depot medroxyprogesterone acetate injections (subcutaneous or intramuscular formulations).

Blood pressure measurement is required prior to initiating combined hormonal contraceptives—containing both estrogen and progestin hormones—due to the increased risk of stroke and myocardial infarction in patients with hypertension or without blood pressure measurements.

This article was co-written by Whitney Russell, a student pharmacist at University of Kentucky College of Pharmacy, and Kailey Hifumi, a student pharmacist at the Pacific University School of Pharmacy.

This article was originally published in Pharmacy Times.

Click image to view and download our COVID guide.

Find out more about providing contraceptive care during COVID-19 on our COVID resource page

References

  1. CDC. Guidance for pharmacies during COVID-19. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/hcp/pharmacies.html; Published April 14, 2020. Accessed May 15, 2020.
  2. Family Planning National Training Center. What family planning providers can do to meet client needs during COVID-19. https://www.fpntc.org/resources/what-family-planning-providers-can-do-meet-client-needs-during-covid-19. Accessed May 15, 2020.
  3. Kaiser Family Foundation. Oral contraceptive pills. Available at: https://www.kff.org/womens-health-policy/fact-sheet/oral-contraceptive-pills/. Published May 23, 2019. Accessed May 15, 2020.
  4. Beyond the Pill. Contraceptive care during COVID-19. https://beyondthepill.ucsf.edu/contraceptive-care-during-covid-19. Accessed May 15, 2020.

5 Pearls from the 2020 States Forum on Pharmacist Birth Control Services

The second annual States Forum on Pharmacist Birth Control Services recently was held by the Birth Control Pharmacist project in partnership with the National Alliance of State Pharmacy Associations (NASPA). Due to the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, this year’s meeting was held virtually as representatives from across the United States, as well as Canada, discussed advances in pharmacist birth control services.

Following a brief overview of the current landscape from the 2019 report, representatives shared updates on pharmacist birth control services in their respective states. The implementation status among the states ranged from fully implemented, in progress, and under consideration, to not being considered at this time.

Each representative was able to provide insight on their successes, challenges, and tips on obtaining state-wide authorities to provide contraception services. Attendees also participated in breakout sessions to brainstorm ideas to improve public awareness, research and evaluation, payment for pharmacist services and advance policy.

Here are 5 pearls to take away from the 2020 States Forum:

  1. Exercise authorities granted by emergency regulations due to COVID-19. As the global pandemic continues to unfold, many states are allowing pharmacists to dispense emergency refills and extended supply quantities. This provision includes refills for hormonal contraception. This unique circumstance can highlight the benefits of implementing contraceptive services within the pharmacy and pave the way for expanded access to birth control.
  2. Identify champions to build a coalition for planned policy proposals. A common barrier expressed in the states forum was legislation halts due to COVID-19. It is important to use this time as an opportunity to expand our outreach to pharmacists and physicians to gain support on pharmacist contraceptive services in the meantime. By identifying pharmacist and physician champions to reach out to medical associations and organizations, states can hopefully overcome and alleviate apprehension from groups opposed to proposed legislation. By educating pharmacist colleagues of the value of providing these services and providing educational resources, we can mitigate pharmacist opposition to legislation. Consider reaching out to obstetrician-gynecologist colleagues, particularly those who are members of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists or have completed a family planning fellowship, to aid in coalition building and policy planning for pharmacist birth control services.
  3. Encourage fellow pharmacists to partake in providing contraceptive services. Pharmacists are key health care members and well equipped to provide these clinical services. There are currently more than 3000 participating pharmacies on the Birth Control Pharmacies map. However, there is still room to expand our reach to more communities as pharmacists. Many pharmacy schools have, or are in the process of implementing, curriculum to complement the implementation of birth control services within pharmacies throughout the US. In some states, legislation has grandfathered pharmacy school graduates to remove additional training barriers. Encourage your colleagues, preceptors, and teams to complete continuing education on contraception services, particularly if practicing in a state with a protocol or other authority available that allows pharmacists to prescribe contraception.
  4. Promote pharmacy services on different platforms to raise public awareness. Although a handful of states have implemented pharmacist birth control services, patients remain widely unaware. By promoting this pharmacy service via signs, social media platforms, partnerships, and through word of mouth, we can expand our impact within the community. Seek partnerships with local student pharmacists and student pharmacy organizations to further promote birth control services.
  5. Join the next States Forum on Pharmacist Birth Control Services. This forum is an opportunity to participate in valuable discussion, and share experiences and strategies to advance pharmacist contraception services in your state. This session was especially helpful for states that are in the process of, or are considering, pharmacy birth control legislation.

If you missed the 2020 States Forum, you may view the meeting recording.

Join the Birth Control Pharmacist email list to be notified of details for the next States Forum. 

The Birth Control Pharmacist project was established to provide training and education, implementation assistance, resources, and clinical updates for pharmacists prescribing contraception. Beyond service implementation, this project engages in advocacy, research and policy efforts within the community to expand the role of pharmacists in family planning.

The mission of NASPA is to provide support and to facilitate collaboration between state pharmacy associations to advance the profession of pharmacy.

This article was co-written by Kailey Hifumi, a student pharmacist at the Pacific University School of Pharmacy.

This article was originally published in Pharmacy Times.