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Invermere puts birth control on UBCM agenda

Access to birth control a public health, not gender issue
birth control
Jessica Barrett: Might we finally be making decisions about women’s health and reproductive choice based on fact rather than emotion?

I’ve got to hand it to Invermere. I never would have guessed the town of about 3,000, located just this side of the Alberta border, would be championing one of the most progressive and long-overdue resolutions at the Union of B.C. Municipalities  Convention, held this week in Vancouver.

Actually, I never thought much about Invermere at all until Mayor Gerry Taft announced last week his council would be seeking support for its resolution asking the provincial government to publicly fund birth control.  

Hallelujah Invermere! I’m your newest, biggest fan. Not only has the move inspired me to add Invermere to my list of summer road trip destinations, I’m taking it as an optimistic sign of the times that the town’s all-male council saw fit to bring the issue to the table. In doing so, they’ve framed reproductive choice as what it is, a public health issue, rather than a “women’s issue.”

In an era where uttering the word “feminist” is considered by many to be a hostile act, and when the merest mention of the #notallmen phenomenon is the surest way to kill the vibe at a house party, and when women in the public eye are routinely exposed to hateful, humiliating, sexist vitriol just for doing their jobs, any indication of us dropping the tired “war of the sexes” angle when addressing issues of gender equality has got to be a net positive.

Might we finally be entering a time when we realize that empowering women does not disempower men, but in fact benefits everyone in society? Might we finally be making decisions about women’s health and reproductive choice based on fact rather than emotion?

Well, we’re trying to, but in Canada we’re playing catch up. In the U.S., health insurers have been mandated to cover both birth control and birth control counselling since the introduction of Obamacare and the policy has led to significant savings. For every dollar invested into the program, $7 are not spent on managing the effects of unwanted pregnancies.

Dr. Wendy Norman of UBC’s school of population and public health says Canada can expect the same benefit, but we have a little legwork to do first in establishing baseline data to make the argument.

“We don’t have the indicator data to be able to run those numbers,” she told me. “One of the main reasons is that most countries, like the U.K., the U.S., France and New Zealand, they all have sexual health surveys that include measurement of the rate of unintended pregnancy.”

Norman is working to rectify that. Since 2011, she’s been working with the provincial government to survey B.C. women about the barriers they face in accessing birth control and the costs of unwanted pregnancy. The results won’t be out until next year, but preliminary results suggest the cost of birth control is the number one barrier women face, and the vast majority bear those costs alone. While some women are covered for certain forms of birth control through B.C.’s PharmaCare program or employer health benefits, Norman says her research suggests less than seven per cent of women have access to insurance that covers their preferred method of birth control. Meanwhile, she’s noticed that in her 30 years as a family doctor, most women are not aware of all the options available to them and most do not split the cost of birth control with their male partners.

While the cost, in dollars and cents, of unwanted pregnancies may be yet to be determined, the social benefits of empowering women to make choices about when, how or if to become mothers, are clear. Not only are women able to seek higher education, better jobs and participate more fully in society when they are able to plan and space their pregnancies, “the children they already have are more likely to graduate high school, more likely to have food, safety, shelter and not be in relationships where there’s violence, because unintended pregnancies are associated with all of those adverse determinants within people’s lives,” Norman says.

And while access to birth control is often thought to be an issue most affecting younger women at the beginning of their sexual lives, Norman notes nearly a third of women will have at least one abortion before they reach menopause and that many unwanted pregnancies are faced by women who’ve already completed — or hoped to complete — their families.

Given all that, it’s absurd to me that more than 50 years after the birth control pill came onto the market and revolutionized society as we know it, we’re only now seriously considering universal access to birth control. But Norman says we just haven’t been looking at the issue from the right perspective — as a public health one, as opposed to a gendered one — until now.

“Really, it’s a case of has society looked at how they can best care for the health of their members?” she says. With her research poised to show a clear argument for better health outcomes at a lower cost, and a chance this week for B.C. municipalities to add their voices to the call, let’s hope clear heads and good data will soon prevail.