College of Charleston senior Maria Jackson cares about contraception.

She first cared in high school, when she started having sex and her teachers offered abstinence-only education.

“Practicing abstinence is a choice a lot of youth make, but if they choose to have sex, they need to be able to do it safely,” Jackson said.

The 21-year-old Georgia native now spends her free time teaching sex-ed classes, lobbying lawmakers and writing letters to the editor stressing what she views as the shortcomings of abstinence-only education.

She works at the Charleston County Teen Pregnancy Prevention Council and serves on the youth council for the Tell Them reproductive health education program.

When she graduates in May with a double major in psychology and women's and gender studies, she wants to spend a year in Latin America, where health care often falls short.

All of which is why, when Gov. Nikki Haley said on the talk show “The View” Tuesday that “women don't care about contraception,” Jackson could hardly believe it.

“How can she say this, when clearly it's not true?” Jackson said.

“The View” host Joy Behar pushed back on the governor, cutting off Haley as she explained that women care about “jobs and the economy and raising their families.”

“Well, they care about contraception too,” Behar said. She then alluded to Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum's public disdain for birth control when it conflicts with religious values.

“Well ... while we care about contraception, let's be clear. All we're saying is, we don't want government to mandate when we have to have it and when we don't,” Haley said. “We want to be able to make that decision. We don't need government making that decision for us.”

The otherwise affable interview touched a public nerve. President Barack Obama mandated health insurance coverage for contraceptives beginning Aug. 1.

Religious groups protested, so Obama proposed an “opt-out” policy with the caveat that insurers still must cover women who work at faith-based organizations. An amendment allowing an exemption for any employer with a moral objection failed by only a few votes.

Several states, including South Carolina, filed a lawsuit to fight the requirement under the First Amendment.

Conservative political activist Phyllis Schlafly, who visited The Citadel Wednesday, said the concern isn't access, but rather who will fund contraception.

Lin Bennett, chairwoman of the Charleston County Republican Party, said members of her party don't discuss the issue, and certainly don't want to cut off contraception. She said “the media and the liberal left” make it an issue.

“If that's not what your church believes in, you shouldn't be forced to offer it,” she said. “The whole thing is just a smoke screen for the larger picture of religious freedom. It has nothing to do with health care.”

Melissa Reed, vice president for public policy at Planned Parenthood, said the debate has everything to do with health care. The typical client at her organization is a 24-year-old woman without health insurance who wants to get a birth control prescription that day, according to Reed.

“Governor Haley is just flat-out wrong,” she said. “Ninety-nine percent of women in the U.S. use contraceptives at some point in their lives. ... It is a benefit that women absolutely must have access to.”

More than 600 patients seek birth control every year at Planned Parenthood's Charleston location, where they can pay a flat rate of $71 for an office visit without health insurance, according to Reed.

But even women with health insurance face tough decisions when it comes to affording contraception, according to Angela Dempsey, an obstetrician/gynecologist at the Medical University of South Carolina. She treated a patient this week, a 26-year-old graduate student, who uses a birth control pill that causes side effects, because the woman can't afford the pill that best suits her body.

The patient takes birth control, Dempsey said, to curb the pain of heavy menstruation. Dempsey noted that contraceptives do more than prevent pregnancy. They treat conditions such as anemia, acne and ovarian cysts.

They also help women plan safer, more spread-out pregnancies that not only ease financial planning but also improve the infant's health, she said. Dempsey considers contraception to be one of the greatest medical advancements of the 20th century, and something her patients care about deeply.

Speaking directly to Haley's remarks on “The View,” Dempsey said, “I think they care about contraception, because they do care about jobs, the economy and their families — because I think they are linked.”

Reach Allyson Bird at 937-5594 or allysonjbird.