When I was 16, my very Catholic mother allowed me to get on birth control, at my doctor’s advising, to ‘regulate’ my periods and also help with chronic headaches.* This is a common story amongst women I’ve known—their first experiences with the pill often had nothing to do with pregnancy prevention. But a new Guttmacher Institute study finds it’s not just teens using oral contraceptives this way: 14% of all birth control users rely on the pill solely for non-contraceptive reasons, such as reducing menstrual pain, treating acne or trying to tame irregular periods.
The study, called “Beyond Birth Control: The Overlooked Benefits of Oral Contraceptive Pills,” also found that while preventing pregnancy is the most common women take birth control pills, more than half (58%) rely on the pill at least in part for other purposes. These include:
• Reducing cramps or other menstrual pain (31%)
• Regulating irregular periods (28%)
• Treating acne (14%)
• Treating endometriosis (4%)
Among teens, the number using the pill for non-contraceptive reasons is even higher—33% using it exclusively for ulterior reasons than preventing pregnancy, and 82% using it at least in part that way. And 762,000 women who have never had sex use the pill.
“It is well established that oral contraceptives are essential health care because they prevent unintended pregnancies,” said study author Rachel K. Jones. “This study shows that there are other important health reasons why oral contraceptives should be readily available to the millions of women who rely on them each year.”
What elevates this study above ‘oh, isn’t that interesting’ health ephemera is that whether birth control pills should be covered as a preventative service for women under the new health care law is a matter that’s been hotly debated recently. This past summer, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said, yes, insurance companies must provide prescription birth control with no copay or deductible as a preventative care treatment. Some religious health organizations say this forces them to choose between offering health insurance and violating their beliefs. Maybe they could feel better knowing some of that free birth control will just go toward preventing pimples and cramps?
* Neither of these things worked, and in fact the only thing in my whole life that has made me have regular periods is not being on the pill, but c’est la vie. Apparently, it works for a lot of people.