Just as Southerners sometimes say “Coke” to mean any sort of soda, you often hear the term “birth control” used to refer explicitly to the pill. Hormonal, oral contraceptives are entrenched as the go-to way to prevent pregnancy in the United States, and not without some good reasons. But long-lasting birth control methods, like IUDs and skin implants could be a better option for many women. Not only can they cut back on certain pill-related side effects, but a large new study finds women are much less likely to get pregnant using one of these instead of the birth control pill, patch or vaginal ring.
If more women nationally were using these long-term methods, “there would be a very significant drop in unintended pregnancies, which would have far-reaching effects,” lead study author Brooke Winner said. Right now, only about 5 percent of American women on birth control use an IUD or implant.
The study, published yesterday in the New England Journal of Medicine, let 7,500 women and teens in St. Louis pick from a variety of free birth control methods, including “short-acting methods,” such as pills, patches or vaginal rings, and long-term but reversible methods like the IUD, hormone shots or implant. And what do you know? More women got pregnant using the birth control methods that required thinking about them daily or weekly.
In the three years that followed, participants had a total of 334 unintended pregnancies. Among the 1,500 who used a birth control pill, patch or ring, between 4 and 5% got pregnant each year—compared to only 0.3% of women using an implant or IUD. Very few women chose to get the once-every-three-months Depo-Provera shot, but of the 176 who did, only two became pregnant during the study.
According to Reuters, half of all pregnancies in the United States are now unintended, and about half of those are in women on birth control who either don’t use it properly, or the method fails.
Choosing the birth control method that works best for you, of course, is based on many factors (some women do just fine on the pill; some women have adverse reactions to IUDs). But in general, the IUD is safe and has few side effects. The major barriers to its widespread use seem to be mostly a) lack of awareness (either that it exists, or that it’s safe) and b) the cost. Because one IUD works for 5-10 years, it can actually be more cost-effective than the pill in the long-run. But the upfront cost is much greater, and some insurance companies still don’t cover it.
“One of the beauties of this study is that it shows that when you take cost out of the equation and you educate women objectively and effectively, about 75 percent of them chose a long-acting method,” Winner said.