During my last trip home to California, the generous people of Planned Parenthood provided me with a few months’ supply of my preferred birth control method, as well as plenty of condoms and emergency contraceptive pills, all free of cost. Alleviating myself from the hassle of having to seek out any birth control when I returned to living in Buenos Aires made the trip back much easier.
The months dwindled, and before I knew it I was running low on hormones to keep my body from ovulating. I didn’t have any trips back to California planned soon, and I was rather frightened about the prospect of having to get birth control without the help of the nice people at Planned Parenthood, or that of my own gynecologist.
Getting pregnant is definitely not on my agenda these days, but as it turns out my previous trepidations about acquiring contraception in a foreign country were extremely misguided. In Argentina, getting your hands on some birth control is incredibly easy: either request birth control free of charge at a public hospital or health center, or march up to a pharmacy and buy some. No prescription needed.
There’s good reason for contraception to be so accessible too. Anyone dedicated to restricting abortions should logically be invested in making contraception widely available and accessible, and Argentina, where abortion is legal only in cases of rape or health risk to the mother, does just that: following national law 25.673, birth control is available free of charge at public hospitals and health centers and is covered by health insurance plans (a list of all the public hospitals and health centers in the country is available here).
Through the public health system, the following birth control methods are available, as illustrated in this handy pamphlet: the shot, IUDs, vasectomies, sterilization, the pill (including pills that are safe for women who are breast-feeding) and emergency contraceptive pills. If you’re requesting birth control for the first time from a public hospital, you’ll be required to have a medical consultation with a gynecologist beforehand. These methods are available to non-Argentines, free of charge as well. For more information than what can be found online, free calls can be placed from anywhere in the country to the Línea Salud Sexual at 0800-222-3444, and your call will remain anonymous if that’s what you prefer.
Beyond the methods available at public hospitals and health centers, other types of birth control are also available for purchase without a prescription at pharmacies, and even more methods can be acquired through a private gynecologist. The prices I list throughout have been gathered from the Farmacity locations in my surrounding area, or by calling up specific branches, but prices may vary slightly from pharmacy to pharmacy.
There are over a dozen birth control methods out there, and trying to assess them all at once can be challenging. Spanish-speakers can find information on the Programa Nacional de Salud Sexual y Procreación Responsable. English-speakers, if reading the information I’ve gathered below doesn’t interest you, a great site to use to compare all of the methods available through visuals and bullet points is Bedsider.
But remember, while websites like Bedsider was put together with the help of medical professionals, you should always consult with a gynecologist before beginning a new method. Information on prices and availability is specific to the United States, but much of its material can be useful regardless of geographical location.
Now for those of you who do enjoy reading (yay reading!), we’ve got more to discuss. And by more, I mean hormones.
The pill, pastillas or píldora, is arguably the most popular birth control method, and used by 40% of Argentine women. It is “The Pill” after all. There are far more brands of the birth control pill available than there are for other methods, which also means that prices vary widely, with a range of AR$30-$120 for a month’s supply at Farmacity. If going through the public or private system, you’ll have to consult individually to find out if your preferred brand is available.
Not everyone wants to take a pill everyday of course, and those who don’t, may want to consider the birth control shot, the inyección, which is administered once a month. In addition to being available for free at public hospitals and health centers, the shot was quoted to me at Farmacity at the low price of AR$40.
Being available for free, or almost free, is certainly a point in the shot’s favor, but I should note that among the pharmacies I visited that carried the shot, not all had it in stock on my visit, and some pharmacies do not administer it at all. As the shot has to be injected on the same day of each month in order for it to be effective, a lack of reliable availability can lead to imperfect use and subsequently, babies.
Those who don’t want to take a pill everyday but also don’t enjoy sticking needles in themselves may be interested in the patch, or parche (or if you’re me and realizing you’ve never said the word ‘patch’ in Spanish before, it’s that ‘thing you stick on your skin’), which goes for around AR$150-$200 for a month’s supply at Farmacity. Unlike the previously-mentioned methods, the patch is not available through the public health system.
Similar to the shot, some of the pharmacies I visited did not have the patch in stock on my particular visit, even if they otherwise typically carried it. The patch must be changed weekly and is less effective for those who weigh over 90 kilos (198 pounds, and I have no idea where that number came from). Like Band-Aids and just about everything that claims to be ‘nude’ in color, the patch comes in only one shade of medium beige, because Caucasian are apparently still the default human color.
Another hormonal method frequently offered as an alternative to the pill is the ring, or anillo. It’s kind of weird, I’ll admit; a plastic ring that sits inside of you, it has to be stored in the refrigerator, and like most products marketed to women, it came with the most inane TV commercial.
There is only one brand on the market and it costs AR$240 per ring at Farmacity, but on the upside, every location I visited had it in stock. To use it, you’ll to have to be comfortable sticking your fingers in your vagina at least once a month, but if you can use an o.b. tampon, you should be able to nestle a plastic ring against your cervix.
If hormones aren’t your thing, one of the easiest to use and most accessible methods of birth control available remains the male condom. It is so ubiquitous that like most things male, it has the privilege of just being referred to as a condom, no specification needed. Its oft forgotten counterpart, the female condom, is a mystery to most, as it is not widely available in many parts of the world.
Sex educators also have yet to find a fruit or vegetable that can accurately demonstrate how to use a female condom to a group of 12 year-olds.
Prices for the kind of condom usually found on bananas and penises range between AR$10-$30 for a three-pack, or up to AR$67 for a 12-pack. Almost every pharmacy sells condoms, and many chinos sell them behind the counter.
Other barrier methods, such as the diaphragm and the cervical cap are, like the female condom, nowhere to be seen. Both work by blocking sperm’s entry to the cervix, and are usually used in conjunction with spermicide. In my experience, they aren’t very popular with people of my generation, and the only time I even saw a diaphragm in person was at my university’s sexual health clinic.
Carrie had a diaphragm on Sex and the City, and in one particular episode it got “stuck” and one of her friends (Samantha, obviously) had to help get it out. It’s a wonder they’re not more popular.
There’s also the contraceptive vaginal sponge, which I’ve literally never seen anywhere in my entire life. It works both by covering your cervix and killing off sperm with spermicidal gel. Where you can find these methods, I have no idea. Does their lack of popularity mean there is just something inherently less sexy about tapping up cervixes and covering vaginal walls than sliding a piece of latex over a penis? I’m just asking.
There are many long-term methods available for those who don’t want to have to re-up their supply every month. To keep your womb or your partner’s womb empty forever, you can request a vasectomy or have your tubes tied free of charge at a public hospital or health center, after a medical consultation.
Intrauterine devices (IUD), aka the dispositivo intrauterino (DIU), are also available at public hospitals and health centers, however the only type available is the non-hormonal copper based IUD, which lasts 10 years. To obtain a hormonal plastic IUD, which lasts 5 years, you’ll have to go through the private sector.
Dr. Claudia María Battista is a gynecologist based in Recoleta (3rd floor, Arenales 1611, 4811 6127) who can administer both hormonal and non-hormonal IUDs, after a medical consultation. The best option for each patient and the price of the IUD must be discussed with the doctor, and Dr. Battista speaks English, if your Spanish is not up to par to discuss your reproductive system.
When it comes to IUDs, many of us with uteruses want to know, “Will it be painful to have inserted?” But each person’s body reacts differently, and some may experience pain only during the insertion, while others will continue to feel cramping a whole day after the procedure.
A few years ago I was talking to a friend who had just gotten an IUD inserted, and I asked her if it had been painful. “Oh no,” she said. “But I have a very high pain tolerance. I also took a Vicodin beforehand.” So interpret that you as will.
But maybe you’re thinking, “I don’t want to have a piece of plastic or metal in my uterus, but I don’t want to worry about birth control every month, either.” Dr. Battista has just the thing – the implant, also known as the implante or anticonceptivo subcutáneo. The implant is a new to Argentina, having just arrived on the market in 2012. Like the IUD, the implant requires no maintenance once it’s in place, and it lasts up to three years. But unlike the IUD, this matchstick-sized piece of plastic is inserted in your arm. While the hormonal version of the IUD works by emitting hormones locally, the implant sends hormones throughout your bloodstream.
As far as private hospitals go, it seems most don’t offer IUDs or implants. Hospital Alemán does not, nor does Sanatorio Mater Dei, home of the preferred gynecology department of Florencia Kirchner. The gynecology department of the latter does however offer referrals to gynecologists who can administer IUDs or implants.
EMERGENCY CONTRACEPTION/THE MORNING-AFTER PILL
Contrary to what many an old, white, male republican US lawmaker would have you believe, mistakes happen, even to the most responsible among us. And while I love impromptu trips to Uruguay as much as anyone, sometimes there just isn’t time for that.
In the case of a birth control failure, you can access the anticoncepción hormonal de emergencia, also known as the morning-after pill easily in Buenos Aires.
Following national law 25.673, emergency contraceptive pills can be accessed free of charge, 24 hours a day, at public hospitals and health centers, after a medical consultation. The morning-after pill can also be purchased at pharmacies such as Farmacity, where it is available free of age-restrictions and without a prescription. In the case of late-night emergencies, the Farmacity on Florida 474 is open 24 hours a day. The one-step and two-step pills are available behind the counter for around AR$40, depending on the brand. I won’t lie, a recent NPR article on counterfeit and defective morning-after pills found at pharmacies in Peru does freak me out a bit about the status of morning-after pills worldwide. The pills found here in Argentina are probably fine, but I don’t want to the be the one to find out that emergency contraception isn’t working.
It’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the methods that are completely free, available without any visits to the doctor, and don’t require any pieces of plastic in your vagina, arm, uterus or penis. Those include fertility awareness methods, withdrawal and abstinence. Exactly how they work and how well they work is up to you to decide.
As a note, all the pharmacists I talked to were helpful and non-judgmental. (Although at my first stop, the pharmacist I spoke to clearly thought it was odd that I was doing a price comparison of various types of birth control as though I were shopping for a kitchen appliance.)
This should be a given for medical professionals, but perhaps I feel the need to note it as I’ve grown accustomed to the presence of a vocal minority in my home country that claims the right to deny access to birth control based on personal moral convictions, or to stories of ‘educators’ who compare
sexually active women to dirty pieces of chocolate and used gum. Or even lawmakers who are just completely clueless about anything related to the female reproductive system, or are too frightened by it to even say the word “vagina.”
Fortunately, I haven’t experienced those sorts of incidents personally, although a pharmacist in my hometown did once let out a totally Edna Krabappel-esque laugh when I asked to fill a prescription for Diflucan, which, as I’m sure she knew, is used to treat yeast infections. Because is anything more hilarious than a yeast infection? (“Yes, everything” – anyone who ever had a yeast infection.)
Luckily, it seems that Argentina’s health system is decidedly not afraid of vaginas and doesn’t want babies coming out of them anymore than you do. Happy birth control hunting! Let your libidos run free.
(Feature image via Bedsider.)