Allowing women to access contraception from their pharmacist without a prescription would “dramatically improve access to essential healthcare for thousands of women”, Ireland’s main pharmacy union has said.

The Irish Pharmacy Union (IPU) said being able to access oral contraception without a prescription is “at least as important” as providing contraceptives free of charge, which has been recommended by the Committee on Eighth Amendment of the Constitution.

The IPU, which has made a proposal to Health Minister Simon Harris on the issue, said Mr Harris had convened a working group on access to contraception in April. A public consultation seeking submissions on the issue was launched last month by the working group.

The union said studies carried out in Oregon, the first state to allow pharmacists to independently prescribe hormonal contraception, found that in the first two years after the policy change, pharmacist prescribing of contraception averted more than 50 unintended pregnancies and saved Oregon an estimated $1.6 million (circa €1.4 million) in public costs.

It also cited a World Health Organisation recommendation in June which said “oral contraceptive pills should be made available without a prescription”.

“Not all barriers to contraception are financial, and free contraception alone may not necessarily lead to increased use,” an IPU spokesperson said.

“Financial and non-financial barriers to access are often connected; a woman who can’t afford to take time off work can’t access a free consultation with a GP, but she can often see a pharmacist in her free time.

“If the Government is sincere about improving access for all, the prescription-free element of our proposal is at least as important as the free-of-charge component.”

The public consultation closes on Monday, August 5.