This country has a pretty good start on female equality and women’s rights. We bagged the right to vote back in 1920, and although the glass ceiling is hardly shattered, it’s got some pretty decent cracks in it.

Now that the problem of women’s rights in the external world has been largely agreed upon (if not completely addressed) there remains one arena of major contention: what right does a woman have over her own body?

As women moved into higher education and the workplace, their traditional role changed from one of childcare to household breadwinner, and as a result, contraceptive measures that had been in use for thousands of years became more refined and widespread. From the pill to the condom, birth control was seen as a method of control against an uncertain future.

Studies such as the 2002 paper, “The Power of the Pill: Oral Contraceptives and Women’s Career and Marriage Decisions” by Claudia Goldin and Lawrence F. Katz show a world in which women began marrying later and pursuing more ambitious career goals as a result of having the pill available to them. Not surprisingly, it’s also one of the most commonly prescribed drugs on college campuses.

But the availability of contraceptives such as the pill, as well as the attitudes toward it, are changing for college students due to government intervention and lobbying groups advocating both for and against it.

As proponents and opponents make their marks in the sand, it may be prudent to deliver a crash course in birth control so you know what works for you, where you can get it and what the powers that be are doing to make it (in)accessible to you.

VARIATIONS ON A THEME

When people say “birth control,” they think pill, neatly cutting out a wide range of other methods that some people find more palatable.

“People need to find the right method for them,” says Michelle Mayti, Vice President of Patient Services at Planned Parenthood Pasadena. “We don’t promote the pill. We promote the method the person is ready to use.”

Those other methods range from abstinence to condoms to Depo-Provera shots, all of which have high success rates (rates of 90 percent and above), according to findings published in Contraceptive Technology by Robert Hatcher.

According to a study by the American College Health Association, however, 40 percent of sexually active college students (some three million college-age women) use some form of the pill or other prescribed birth control method, making it a popular and relatively noninvasive way for women to avoid unwanted pregnancies.

In addition, birth control pills are the most popular choice for all age groups with a 30 percent use rate across the nation, according to the Mayo Clinic.

The birth control pill as we know it is composed of a mix of progesterone and estrogen, two hormones that are naturally occurring within the female body. Using a correct balance of those hormones, the pill prevents the body from ovulating normally and encourages the body to produce substances that decrease sperm mobility.

According to the manufacturers, different pills have varying compositions of those hormones, leading to different side effects depending on the person who uses them. By that token, there’s literally no one pill that works the same for everyone.

The pill has other side effects than merely preventing unwanted pregnancies. Acne, irregular periods and intense cramping can be controlled by proper use of the pill because these conditions are affected by the hormone supplements that the pill provides.

OPPOSITION

But contraceptives are not universally well received. Conservative groups such as the Heritage Foundation and the Family Research Council wage lobbying wars against abortive rights and in support of programs like abstinence-only education.

Abstinence-only education is hardly a new program. According to the Advocates for Youth organization, abstinence-only education has received federal funding since 1982 despite evidence of its ineffectiveness.

In the year 2007, the Bush administration budgeted $204 million for these programs that qualify for funding if the curriculum covers what the administration considers are eight essential points, some of which are considered very controversial.

According to the federal government, a program cannot receive funding for its sexual education if it discusses other methods than abstinence and that the programs must impress upon the students that monogamous sexual relationships within the context of marriage are the socially accepted standard from which they should not deviate.

“Practicing abstinence until marriage and fidelity in marriage are the most effective ways of preventing STDs, pregnancy and a whole range of negative psychological and social consequences,” says Moira Gaul, Director of Women’s and Reproductive Health for the Family Research Council.

The goal of the program, according to Gaul, is to provide behavioral messages to teens to encourage them to resist the temptations of premarital sex. However, according to a recently released study by the Mathematica group, abstinence-only education has no impact on the rates of sexual activity or unprotected sex and that the youth who took part in the abstinence-only programs had false conceptions on the efficacy of condoms at preventing the spread of STDs.

ON CAMPUS WOES

The birth control crunch has reached beyond abstinence-only middle school and high school education and into the college campuses.

For nurse Ann Brookes of UCLA Medical Center, birth control was a very commonly prescribed drug.

“The medical center filled 9,758 prescriptions for six most common types of oral contraceptives between January 2006 and March 14, 2007,” Brookes says.

Unfortunately, after the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005 went through Washington, drug companies started paying more to work with Medicaid programs, and the additional money had to be recovered somewhere. As a result, drug companies who had traditionally given major discounts on drugs to universities suddenly rescinded those discounts.

Fortunately, UCLA had a plan.

“We stored a few months in advance,” Brookes says. “The thing with medications, though, is the price never goes down. In this case, it’s one of those preventative things that’s much less expensive than the alternative.”

For some students, however, the prices of their birth control will be doubling, a cost which some can ill afford.

“It’s more frustrating than a challenge,” Brookes says. “When you talk about something like birth control there are a lot of options. Some people can take any of them, have side effects with some rather than others. Sometimes when cost is an issue they’ll put up with minor side effects more. The bottom line is that it goes to the student as to what they need the most – if they need to stay with the meds they’re comfortable on or a lower cost medication.”

So, as the cost of prescribed medications skyrocket, it’s comfortable to know that at least one tried and true birth control method, the condom, remains within a college student’s price range. Now if only sex ed taught people it was OK to use them.