Allowing women to pick up a year's supply of birth control pills at a time could help prevent more unwanted pregnancies, a new study suggests.

Researchers in California found that lower-income women who got a year's supply of the Pill had fewer unplanned pregnancies than women who picked only package at a time, or even those who picked up three packs at a time.

They studied more than 84,000 Californian women who took oral contraceptives in 2006. A portion of the women were part of a family planning program whose clinics were able to dispense a one-year supply of pills on site.

For every 1,000 women, 10 in the group who got the year's supply became pregnant within a year. That compared to 30 among those who had to come back every one to three months to pick up new packs.

As well, only about two of every 1,000 women who had a full year's worth of pills had a state-funded abortion in the following year. Among women who were prescribed shorter supplies of pills, roughly six of every 1,000 had an abortion.

Overall, the researchers observed a 30 per cent drop in the odds of pregnancy and a 46 per cent decline in the odds of an abortion when the women received a one-year supply of pills.

To put it another way, if the 65,000 women in the study who received either one or three packs of pills at a time had experienced the same pregnancy rates as the women who got the one-year supply, almost 1,300 pregnancies and 300 abortions would have been avoided.

The findings, reported in the journal Obstetrics & Gynecology, are significant, given that many private and public health insurance plans limit how many packages of birth control pills can be picked up at once. Many cap it at three packs.

Birth control pills are one of the most commonly used methods of reversible contraception in Canada and the U.S., and are highly effective when used consistently.

The researchers didn't investigate the reasons for the different pregnancy rates, but speculate that a larger supply of pills allows more reliable use, since women need to make fewer visits to a clinic or pharmacy.

"Women need to have contraceptives on hand so that their use is as automatic as using safety devices in cars," said the study's lead author Diana Greene Foster, in a news release.

"Providing one cycle of oral contraceptives at a time is similar to asking people to visit a clinic or pharmacy to renew their seatbelts each month."

The researchers add that making birth control pills more accessible would not only reduce the incidence of unintended pregnancy, it would save taxpayer dollars in the long run.

"The evidence indicates that health plans and public health programs may avoid paying for costly unintended pregnancies by increasing dispensing limits on oral contraceptives," said Foster.

"Improving access to contraceptive methods reduces the need for abortion and helps women to plan their pregnancies."