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The grassroots movement that made contraception free in B.C.

AccessBC, which lobbied for the policy, began as a two-person bull session in a Saanich kitchen seven years ago
Dr. Ruth Habte is an obstetrics and gynecology resident and campaign organizer for AccessBC, an organization that helped get free contraception introduced in the latest B.C. provincial budget. JASON PAYNE, PNG

When prescription contraceptives become free starting April 1, it will be the culmination of an effort begun seven years ago by a grassroots group called AccessBC that had its start in a Vancouver Island kitchen as a back-of-the-envelope rough idea.

Teale Phelps Bondaroff, a marine conservationist, researcher, Saanich councillor and co-founder of AccessBC, earned his doctorate at Cambridge in England, where prescription birth control is free. When he and his partner came back to Canada and went to obtain birth control at the pharmacy they were shocked to see the sticker price.

“At that time the intrauterine device, the hormonal type, was $350 and that’s a lot of money for a grad student who’s just come back and moved into a new city,” he said.

He contacted his longtime friend Devon Black, today a Victoria-area lawyer who was still in high school when she was Phelps Bondaroff’s communications manager for his run at Parliament in 2006. Black was on the Islands Sexual Health Society board and an experienced reproductive-justice advocate.

“We were sort of complaining about [contraceptive costs] around my kitchen table seven years ago and we decided to do something about it and launched a campaign,” Phelps Bondaroff said. “We basically started off with just a Twitter account and tweeted some information.”

That led to a letter-writing campaign, meetings with politicians, adoption as policy by the NDP and now law, the first of its kind in Canada.

“We started off as a group working around my kitchen table and now we have all these volunteers,” he said.

“We have a high school student who’s designing our billboards. We have lawyers and doctors and retired health practitioners and teachers. It’s an amazing team of people.”

The provincial government said it will spend $119 million over three years for the program and that it would save someone who pays $25 a month on the pill as much as $10,000 over her lifetime.

Hormone injections cost as much as $180 annually and IUDs cost between $75 and $500.

And, according to a 2010 study by Vancouver-based Options for Sexual Health, universal access to publicly funded contraception will save B.C. taxpayers money. The organization’s study found that for every dollar spent on contraceptive support saves up to $90 in social-support spending, a savings of at least $95 million a year.

Dr. Ruth Habte, AccessBC’s campaign organizer, is a pharmacist-cum-physician doing her residency at UBC in the department of obstetrics and gynecology. Through both fields, in the dispensary and the doctor’s office, she saw women every day who were unable to access the contraception they needed.

“Whether it’s for contraception purposes or whether it’s for heavy menstrual bleeding, pelvic pain, a number of different indications,” she said. “It ends up costing the person a lot in personal struggles and ends up costing the government, as well, a lot of money, so it’s a win-win situation when these medications are covered [by the Medical Services Plan].”

Under a publicly funded universal health care system, the costs of not having free contraception are downstream, she said.

About half of all pregnancies are unplanned, she said, and unintended pregnancies that result in miscarriage or abortion carry costs to taxpayers. Miso pills, covered by MSP, can be $200, while delivering a baby can run upwards of $10,000, depending on whether there are complications.

“All of these things, which are paid for by the government, are very expensive and are downstream effects of not having access to contraception,” Habte said.

“By covering medication upstream and providing people the opportunity, if they want to, to having the contraception of their choice it leads to savings because there are fewer unintended pregnancies … which tend to be more risky and tend have more complications than ones that were planned.”

Contraceptives can also be gender-affirming for trans and gender-diverse people, Habte said, by suppressing menstrual cycles in someone who doesn’t identify as female, for example.

“Overall, [free contraception] just leads to better health outcomes,” she said.

AccessBC has sister campaigns in Ontario, Manitoba, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.

“[Free contraception] should, obviously, be policy that’s across Canada.”