Body Politic #2: Who's really in control of your birth control?

close-up of a strip of birth control pills

My doctor and I sat there, blankly staring at one another, wondering where we both went wrong. I was perched beside his desk, asking for a prescription refill for my birth control.

“You don’t need to ask me,” he kept saying. “Just call ahead, ask for what you’d like and come pick it up at the clinic.”

Just like that—like calling ahead to pick up pizza or Chinese take-out.

“But then who do I pay for it?” I asked. I was a Canadian living in Edinburgh on a working holiday, and my contract position didn’t offer health insurance.

“Oh my, “ he said. “Do you have to pay for your birth control in Canada?”

“Yeah…”

“[Birth control’s] a human right, love. We don’t pay for that here.”

While a percentage of the most common forms of hormonal birth control are covered by health insurance in Canada, no one I know has been able to stay pregnancy-free for, well, free.

It’s true that spending $4 per month for a pack of pills—about the average out-of-pocket price for birth control with insurance coverage—is manageable for most women.  But insurance coverage is not a given, especially in the supposedly-post-recession employment market.

When covering the debate surrounding American health care reform, Sharon Lerner, a writer with lady-blog DoubleX wrote:

“Women’s health advocates reported that some Democrats cited a fear of igniting controversy when asked to insert birth control and other preventive services for women into the minimum benefits package. What’s the controversy, exactly? It seems birth control has become a suddenly loaded political issue, a toxic sister to abortion, somehow resonant of irresponsible sex and women’s bodies.”

Can the same be said of Canada? Are we too afraid of controversy to fully-fund birth control options of all stripes?

Over the years I’ve been covered under Sun Life Financial and Blue Cross—Sun Life only covers 80 per cent of the price of pill-form contraceptives, meaning those of us who go another route are left footing the bill themselves.

The term “freedom to choose” is most often associated with abortion, but what about those of us that are just looking to find the right contraception for our bodies? I’ve often felt that young women are thrown “The Pill” as a hook-line-and-sinker form of birth control. Yep, the pill’s for you. Not so sure? Well your doctor can talk to you about other options, but good luck paying for it.

That is, if your doctor is even open to other options in the first place. Across various provinces I’ve heard accounts from friends who say their current form of contraception is simply what their doctor recommended, rather than the product of actual research or trial and error.

This is especially troubling, as recent reports have shown that Yaz, one of North America’s most prescribed forms of birth control—not to mention one of the most heavily marketed—has side effects that are much worse than previously thought.

Yaz is the perfect example of problems in the current birth control industry. Who can patients trust with their health when doctors prescribe away and undertake partnerships with pharmaceutical companies, and household budgets strangle our choices?