The practical reality of contraception, Australian edition

Background the first: The practical reality of contraception: A guide for men, by Valerie Aurora, about contraception in the US

Background the second: A layperson’s intro to paying for healthcare in Australia which I wrote as specific background to this post.

Things that are the same in Australia

Contraception works the same way! The side-effect risks are the same:

Let’s start with estrogen-based hormonal birth control and health. I know women who get life-threatening blood clots on estrogen birth control (if the clot gets lodged in a blood vessel, effects range from loss of a limb to death). Others have mood swings so bad that their partners threaten to break up with them and their boss calls them into their office to ask why they’re so mean and bitchy all of a sudden. Don’t laugh – losing your partner or your job is serious shit, and many women decide to risk pregnancy and an abortion rather than the certainty of being abandoned and broke. Another side effect is feeling like you’re going to barf, which usually goes away after a few weeks, but not for everyone. More side effects and health problems abound, but those are the ones I know about offhand.

The mechanism is the same:

Now let’s talk failure rates. You have to take the birth control pill every single day, within a few hours of the same time, to get that 98% or 99% effective rate. Big whoop, you may think. I take my blood pressure medicine every day. Usually. Actually, it’s pretty hard, even with those little day-of-the-week labels on the pills.

Those are specific to the combined pill, but there is no special magical Australian version of contraception. Same risks, same side-effects, same administration, same failure rate.

Valerie’s description of providers withholding prescriptions to force a patient to have a pelvic exams is also true here, although they usually aren’t called pelvic exams: they’re called Pap smears, even though the bimanual exam is often performed too. However, they’re done slightly less often: every 2 years in Australia for low-risk women.

I believe doctors and pharmacists in Australia can refuse the prescription and the supply based on personal moral considerations, and that really sucks. However, it doesn’t seem as common except for the (sometimes publicly-funded!) Catholic hospitals, ew. (See Lauredhel’s “Pro-life” Archbishop Hart’s murderous misogyny and Catholic Church says “Thalidomide-analogue cancer trial? No contraceptive advice for you!”)

Things that are different


Very important! Many many many brands of the pill are PBS medications, and cost about $30 for 4 months’ supply, so, getting close to Valerie’s mythical $8 a month mark.

Moreover, other contraceptive mechanisms (except condoms, which probably cost about the same) are cheaper too. For example, in the US I understand that I would be out of pocket at least $500 to have a Mirena IUD. In Australia, I had the insertion performed in a public hospital (being elective, I had to wait about 10 weeks), and bought the device from a pharmacy for $35 as it is a PBS medication. Total cost: $35! Length of contraceptive effectiveness: 5 years! (Downside: needs to be shoved into uterus. However, this is easier to do if you’ve shoved a baby the other way.)

Trouble at the doctor

As in Valerie’s entry, scripts for regular hormonal contraception do need to be re-done once a year or so, and given the side-effect profile of the Pill, I can see why. (If your blood pressure is up, you probably won’t notice, but you should be off the Pill.) At least in major metro areas, getting a non-essential appointment to get a script re-issued seems less of a pain though: a few days notice and your clinic will get you in for the required 15 minutes. Also, most doctors will prescribe the Pill to a brand-new patient after a short verbal medical history (at least, if you mention a Pap smear within the last two years) and a blood pressure check, so you can pop into a bulk billing clinic if you have one handy.

In addition, very recent law changes apparently will allow pharmacists to directly supply a small amount of contraceptives (and blood pressure meds) to patients to tide them over to their next doctor’s appointment. (I heard this on the radio, so, sadly, no citation.)

Trouble at the pharmacy

Like other meds in Australia, this just isn’t as much of a pain. The PBS contribution, if any (Nuvaring isn’t covered, say), goes on before you ever go anywhere near the pharmacy, you pay the remainder yourself usually. So the fighting with one’s insurer step is gone. Moreover, while pharmacies do only fill scripts towards the end of the previous supply, the “towards the end” test is more generous: you have two to three weeks at least.


I think Australia really wins here, especially on cost.