Buy my bio textbook, or refill my Pill?

Students, lawmakers -- and, ideally, Congress -- rally to lower out-of-reach contraceptive prices.

By Lynn Harris
November 12, 2007 9:49PM (UTC)
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Hey, New Yorkers, what are you doing today at 4:45 p.m.? I can tell you what college students are not doing, today, or any day: buying birth control from campus clinics at remotely affordable prices. Hence today's rally in Washington Square Park, sponsored in part by Planned Parenthood of NYC and reproductive rights organizations at NYU and NYU Law School, to demand passage of the the Prevention Through Affordable Access Act, which was introduced in the House Nov. 8 by Rep. Joseph Crowley, D-N.Y. The bill, a no-brainer that would (magic words) cost taxpayers nothing, is designed to restore the ability of college health services (along with other nonprofit "safety net" clinics) to get birth control from pharmaceutical companies at a discount -- and pass the savings along to students.

Background: As you may have heard, a weird glitch in the 2005 Deficit Reduction Act, which went into effect in January, made it too expensive for drug companies to continue to offer such discounts. (Planned Parenthood describes this as "an inadvertent outcome of a complicated change in the law." But wouldn't it be nice if, for once, a weird glitch caused trouble not for women or poor people but for, I don't know, Exxon? Or if Congress had acted quickly to fix the glitch, as it might have done had the glitch involved, I don't know, Exxon?)


Result: Brand-name prescription prices for university clinics rose from $3 to $10 per month to the ballpark of $30 to $50. The Massachusetts College of Art, for one, which used to offer certain contraception for free, no longer makes it available at all. (The drug companies -- which, remember, are companies, not good-doing community health collectives -- say that while they're not happy about it, the price hike was a "business decision" they had to make.)

The issue is (re-)heating up right now in part because of the Crowley bill, in part because stockpiles of the cut-rate contraceptives -- wisely hoarded by clinics when the news broke -- are running dry. Students have also organized to get their lawmakers to find a fix. (Minnesota, for example, acted in August to allow clinics to unite as cooperatives to negotiate bulk sales of contraceptives.)

Now, to answer your questions. Yes, a student could march over to CVS with her family's insurance card (if any) and get the Pill there, assuming the pharmacists there do their jobs), and assuming the student doesn't mind that "your daughter is having sex and you are paying for it" might show up on an itemized report in her parents' mailbox. Yes, a student could go to a local Planned Parenthood (if any) and use her parents' health insurance or the clinic's sliding scale, or apply for public health insurance herself.


And yes, there is such a thing as a condom. You can get a whole goddamn 100-count super sampler pack for only $24.95. (And, wishful thinking moment, these kids were using condoms with hormonal birth control anyway, STDs being what they are. Right?) So on the one hand, the suggestion that these high costs will lead directly to a measurable surge in unintended pregnancies is perhaps a bit overblown.

On the other hand, if we know anything about birth control, we know this: The most effective method is the one you actually use. For instance, if memory and routines are not your strong point, the Pill -- regardless of its overall success rate -- is not going to be the most effective method for you. Likewise, one type may give you migraines and cramping while another's a total breeze. So ideally, you should choose contraception based on what works best for you, not based on, say, what you can afford. And let's face it, the unfortunate truth is that condoms are neither universally adored nor universally in the drawer when the need arises.

"One of the seminal concepts in contraceptive medicine is when a woman is using a method correctly and successfully, the last thing you want to do is change her from that," Lee Shulman, board chairman of the Association of Reproductive Health Professionals, told the Wall Street Journal. "You don't want to change her unless there is an absolute medical necessity to do so."


We also know that -- for reasons that are partly mysterious, partly troubling -- the rate of unintended pregnancy for women in their twenties is on the rise. (According to a recent report in AlterNet, for one thing, young women are more afraid of getting an STD than they are of getting pregnant. When it comes to condom use, of course, this only confuses the matter.) Ideally, women facing new financial obstacles to getting birth control are going to have to be very resourceful, or very careful. Some, inevitably, will be neither.

But that doesn't mean contraception should remain out of reach. At the end of the day, policy must be based on reality, not on the way we wish things were. More to today's point, it should also not be based on weird glitches gone unfixed. Sexually active women (and men), bottom line, need all the birth control they can get -- and they need to be able to get it, easily. So, see you in Washington Square Park? Or on this petition page?

Lynn Harris

Award-winning journalist Lynn Harris is author of the comic novel "Death by Chick Lit" and co-creator of She also writes for the New York Times, Glamour, and many others.

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