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When rights become reality

Dene Moore: It’s long past time to make contraception free.

Vasectomies are free; birth control isn’t. In 2020.

Sixty years since oral contraceptives revolutionized the lives of women with the promise of evening the gender playing field and they are still a struggle for some women to access.

So the BC NDP got my attention with a simple paragraph on page 14 of their platform, one that received frustratingly little fanfare.

It says that if the NDP are re-elected, this time they will make contraception free:

“Cost should not prevent individuals, particularly young people, from their right to make choices about their reproductive health. While condoms can be easily found for little or no cost, and vasectomies are covered under MSP, prescription contraception is not covered.”

Hell, it’s well past time, but we’ll take it.

Approved in the United States in 1960, oral contraceptives were not approved for use as a general contraceptive in Canada until 1967. So we’re not exactly trailblazers in the fight for reproductive rights.

Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Russia, China, Indonesia, Korea, Mexico… these are just some of the countries where a woman’s right to choose is more than a landmark Supreme Court ruling. It’s real life – and free.

As of 2016, about 61 per cent of Canadian women had had an unplanned pregnancy – and yet use of contraception methods like the pill has been in steady decline, according to AccessBC, an advocacy group for birth control coverage.

“Cost remains a significant barrier,” says the group.

Pills and patches cost about $30 per month and an IUD costs hundreds. Depo-provera shots can cost up to $150 per month, and a vaginal ring up to $200. And yet many health plans don’t cover alternatives to oral contraceptives.

In the fine-print world of health benefits, erectile dysfunction drugs are often covered, but it’s birth control pills or bust. Forget IUDs, implants, vaginal rings, patches, or really anything invented after Elvis left the army.

They argue studies have shown the cost of universal contraception coverage would be recouped in as little as six to 12 months. B.C. alone could see an annual savings of as much as $95 million a year – twice the cost of providing free birth control.

It’s basic preventative health. Where women have access to free contraception the rates of unintended pregnancy and abortion plummet.

That is significant in a province where abortion services are scant outside of Metro Vancouver and the cost of travel is not reimbursed. A study by the UBC Faculty of Medicine found that 90 per cent of the 16,000 abortions performed in B.C. in 2010 took place in urban facilities.

Not surprising since, in the decade previous, B.C. lost 60 per cent of its rural abortion providers, said Dr. Wendy V. Norman, a family physician and assistant professor who led the study.

Last year the NDP government extended coverage for the medical abortion drug RU-486 (or mifegymiso) to pay the full cost. The drug came onto the market in 1988, but wasn’t approved by Health Canada until 2015. The province said the drug would be kept in stock at rural and remote pharmacies.

A right is not a reality until we make it so. And a woman’s right to choose – to make a real choice to prevent pregnancy – should not depend on the outcome of a provincial election.

Dene Moore is an award-winning journalist and writer. A news editor and reporter for The Canadian Press news agency for 16 years, Moore is now a freelance journalist living in the South Cariboo. Moore’s two decades in daily journalism took her as far afield as Kandahar as a war correspondent and the Innu communities of Labrador. She has worked in newsrooms in Vancouver, Montreal, Regina, Saskatoon, St. John’s and Edmonton. She has been published in the Globe and Mail, Maclean’s magazine, the New York Times and the Toronto Star, among others. She is a Habs fan and believes this is the year.