Looking back, moving forward

The McGill students who made contraception accessible

Emma Carr, Student Living Editor

“The McGill Students’ Council affirms the principle that the student, like any other citizen, has the right to information and counselling about birth control, as well as to any contraceptive device he may require,” a 1967 McGill Students’ Council decision reads.

With this decision, the McGill Students’ Council, the precursor to the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU), acknowledged that access to contraception was a legal right—nearly two years before the government of Canada reached the same conclusion. These students’ decision represented not only a remarkable act of civil disobedience but also set a precedent for making contraception more accessible within the university’s gates.

During a period when contraception was scarce, and literature on the subject even more so, McGill students collaborated on a campaign to educate young people about reproductive health. In their mission to make contraception available on campus, the McGill Students’ Council commissioned a manual to distribute across campus: the Birth Control Handbook. First published in 1968, the Birth Control Handbook, was initially commissioned by McGill’s student government. Though its publication would be illegal until 1969, when the section of the Criminal Code that made it illegal to advertise or sell birth control was overturned, McGill students were resolved to educate their peers on the subject. The publishers later distributed the manual to universities across North America and offered young people information on reproductive health, abortion, and hormonal birth control.

“In 1968, the dissemination of birth control information was still against the law in Canada,” Allan Feingold, co-editor of the Birth Control Handbook said. “We had been preparing the birth control handbook in an atmosphere of civil disobedience, but, in fact, when the book was actually published, it had already been legalized.”

As undergraduate students, Feingold and co-editor Donna Cherniak collaborated on the Birth Control Handbook. Intended to educate students and challenge the illegal status of birth control literature, the handbook was political and instructive in equal parts.

“The point of the Birth Control Handbook was to give people information not only about the plumbing of how you get pregnant and how not to get pregnant, but about the social and political issues that influence how all that works,” Cherniak said.

Working alongside Montreal-based doctors Thomas Primrose and Robert Kinch, Cherniak, Feingold, and their team of fellow students compiled the handbook to address the lack of information about birth control available to students.

“We were not doctors,” Feingold said. “We were not medical students even, and we spent a month studying enough to produce the first edition of the Birth Control Handbook [...], and we tapped into this huge demand that we actually didn’t fully appreciate.”

The handbook achieved immediate success. Following its initial release, the Birth Control Handbook was distributed to universities across North America. In total, twelve editions were printed and millions of copies sold, making the handbook one of the most influential public health texts of its era. Cherniak believes that the handbook addressed a latent demand for educational material on reproductive health.

“We were not doctors,” Feingold said. “We were not medical students even, and we spent a month studying enough to produce the first edition of the Birth Control Handbook [...], and we tapped into this huge demand that we actually didn’t fully appreciate.”

“We didn’t make it to be read cover-to-cover. It was done in sections, [and] our intention was that] people would consult what they needed,” Cherniak said. “[However], people kept it in their drawers. It was a treasured item [....] We were [surprised by the demand], actually [....] It went beyond what the student body was able to cope with, and that’s where a group of us formed the Montreal Health Press [which published later editions of the handbook….] All the CEGEPs had them. It was like ketchup, a known phenomenon [...] across Canada.”

The Birth Control Handbook’s most significant achievement was its dissemination of a delicate, vital message to young people in a fraught cultural climate for reproductive rights. Feingold explained that the handbook empowered an information-starved student body with the knowledge to make informed decisions.

“It was underground peer education,” Feingold said. “Multiple universities ended up distributing the Birth Control Handbook as part of the freshman package.”

Despite the handbook’s monumental success, Cherniak notes that it was not a universal solution. She explained that, on present day campuses, administrative obstacles to obtaining prescription contraception persist.

“To me, there is no question [that the Birth Control Handbook impacts present day access to contraceptives at McGill],” Cherniak said. “It didn’t mean [the handbook accomplished] everything that we hoped for.”

Though disseminating information about birth control is no longer illegal, students continue to encounter barriers to access, including limited sex education, extended appointment wait times, and the monetary cost of filling the prescription. To overcome these barriers, McGill’s current students have continued to champion access to birth control. Inheriting Cherniak and Feingold’s legacy, these student leaders have attempted to transform the perception of birth control on campus through similar strategies of advocacy and peer-education.

In 2016, the New Democratic Party (NDP) McGill advocated for universal cost-free birth control. At the 2016 Fall General Assembly, NDP McGill raised the Motion Regarding SSMU Support For Cost-Free Birth Control Coverage, which proposed that the Health and Dental Review Committee release a report on making birth control free for non-Quebec residents under the SSMU health insurance plan and for international students covered by the Compulsory International Health Insurance. Julian Bonello-Stauch (U3 Arts), policy director for NDP McGill at the time, drafted the motion with the hope that the Health and Dental Review Committee’s report would result in free contraception on campus.

“At the time we proposed this, Quebec students could claim the full cost of their prescription, [however] non-Quebec Canadian students [could not],” Benollo-Stauch said. “I expressed an interest in increasing access to birth control for Canadian students and also hopefully international students [....] We wrote a motion for SSMU [and] also went to the New Democratics’ assembly and got the commitment to make birth control free put into the party’s constitution.”

“To me, there is no question [that the Birth Control Handbook impacts present day access to contraceptives at McGill],” Cherniak said. “It didn’t mean [the handbook accomplished] everything that we hoped for.”

The motion was approved at the Nov. 17 Legislative Council meeting; however, the report of the Health and Dental Committee hasn’t yet led to cost-free birth control under neither the SSMU nor the international student health plan. Despite this inaction, NDP McGill hopes that the motion has since encouraged SSMU and the student body to eliminate other hindrances students face in obtaining their prescriptions. Current co-president of the chapter Sarah Mikhail (U3 Arts) added that, in addition to eliminating the financial barrier to access, the motion also attempted to foster a campus culture in which prescription contraception was easily obtainable.

“You do get a lot of people who are coming out of province, who are still on their parents’ insurance, who already have a system worked out,” Mikhail said. “But, there is also this medical grey area on how to go about it [....] I think there is an administrative minefield for a lot of individuals, and, information-wise, too, they just don’t know how to go about it. It’s just something that is left up to your own devices, and for a lot of individuals, they don’t know the first place to look for something like that.”

Despite the lack of concrete policy changes, NDP McGill members still view the 2016 motion as an important step forward. NDP McGill hopes that the motion has underscored the remaining obstacles patients face to get their hands on prescription contraception.

“When something is legalized, people see it as [if] the issue is over,” Mikhail said. “It has been 50 years [since birth control was legalized.…] But I think that [the cost of birth control] is often an issue that is put off the table when discussing electoral platforms or something extra [...despite the fact that birth control] is an equalizer for a lot of people, and it is a necessity, and it is not being addressed as such.”

In the interim, additional campus groups are advocating for increased access to birth control information on campus. Healthy McGill, a service that aims to educate students about sexual health, assists students who are intimidated or confused by the process of acquiring birth control. Peer sex educators at the organization such as first-year Master’s student in public health Marcus Wong and Yuwen Zhang, second-year Master’s student in education, make students aware of resources available on campus and educate them on sexual health topics. When advising students on prescription contraception, Wong noted that their program emphasizes student safety and their autonomy.

“It’s hard because it still is a pharmaceutical drug and hormones, and [it is important to be monitored], so you are not taking too much or too little,” Wong said. “I think the best way to [make birth control more accessible] right now is to take a very educational [...] approach and just tell people, [...] ‘this is what [birth control is.] It’s fine, it’s normal, but be educated about how you can go about getting it.’ Once people know, they will be a little bit more receptive.”

As part of their mandate to educate McGill students on issues related to student well-being, Healthy McGill sets up kiosks and hosts tabling events across campus where McGill students are invited to ask questions about the health services offered by the university and issues related to sexual health, including birth control. In educating students about prescription contraception, Healthy McGill takes a harm-reduction approach; through their outreach, Wong and Zhang hope to empower McGill students with the knowledge to make safe and informed decisions about their reproductive well-being.

“We’re not really telling students to do one thing or another thing,” Wong said. “But, we want to make sure that, if they engage in any behaviour, that they are equipped with the necessary tools and knowledge.”

In disseminating this message, Zhang has noticed that students can still feel uncomfortable accessing the channels available on campus to obtain their prescriptions, and, consequently, they do not always pursue the method of contraception that they believe is best-suited for them. To resolve this issue, the organization’s staff aims to reduce the stigma surrounding prescription contraception and offers judgement-free consultation to curious students.

“[Prescription contraception] is still stigmatized to a certain [extent...],” Zhang said. “There’s a bit of social pressure there. The first thing we need to [tell students that are hesitant to obtain contraception is that] if you reach out to get information, the whole environment should be non-judgmental and not put social pressure on them. So, again, it’s more like, create a safer space for students to reach out to get what they want, [...] and that’s what [Healthy McGill is] doing right now”

Healthy McGill attempts to reverse negative connotations, creating a safe space for hesitant students in search of contraception. Yet, as Zhang’s analysis suggests, institutions still lack a universal understanding of birth control as a basic necessity for many students.

Though birth control is no longer illegal, there is a continued demand for progress. The authors of the Birth Control Handbook laid the groundwork for current advocates without knowing the present-day implications of their work. But, since their activism, new campus proponents of increased access to birth control have extended their impact and continue to stress the importance of additional support and education for students seeking out prescription contraception. Reflecting on the progress made since the initial release of the Birth Control Handbook, Cherniak remarked that, though advocates have made dramatic progres, they continue to face many of the same challenges.

“It is an issue that repeats itself really for every generation,” Cherniak said. “It’s different now because the internet [has made it easier to find information on birth control...], but the same message still has to be brought forward.”