Achieving and sustaining universal access to contraceptives are key policy goals of interventions supplying contraceptive commodities. Donor support for contraceptive supplies is substantial and many public and national programmes rely on donated and subsidized supplies of contraceptives. Sustainability of programme benefits is a concern to both national governments and donor agencies. At the same time, market-based provision of contraceptives has become a major source of contraceptives for individuals in a number of countries. While the goals or ‘ends’ of policy are to increase and sustain universal access to contraceptives, there is debate about the role of markets and their negative impacts on equity and universality. There is also concern that while public programmes supplying free contraceptives may, in the medium-term, achieve high coverage, they may hamper the achievement of long-term sustainability and the development of commercial markets. This paper focuses on the tension between the public health and market paradigms, and uses economic analysis as a framework in order to examine the relative roles or ‘means’ for subsidized public and commercial private sector supply of contraceptives.