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Have You Heard the One About the Pill?
Sherilyn Blake
Sex Advice Column

In 2009, only one in five sexually active teens in the U.S. reported using the birth control pill the last time they had sex. This rate seems extremely low. Meanwhile, one in three girls gets pregnant at least once by the time she’s 20. This puts our nation’s teen pregnancy rate at the top in the developed world.

These two statistics are related. If teens don’t use any kind of birth control, pregnancy rates will become higher. It’s a cause-and-effect kind of thing.

Why might our rate of using the pill be so low? It could be because teens don’t know where to get the pill, but it could also be something else. Recently, a discussion among NYC staff writers showed that many of us had misconceptions about the pill based on rumors.

One writer had a friend whose doctor supposedly warned that long-term use of the pill could cause infertility. (Not true.) Another writer understood that her aunt’s doctor blamed her miscarriage on her previous use of birth control pills. (Not true.)

We decided to consult with someone who knows what the pill is all about—Evelyn Intondi, a nurse and midwife, and associate vice president of clinical services at Planned Parenthood of New York City. We first asked her about the troubling things we’d heard about infertility and miscarriages.

Intondi said what we’d heard was totally false. “Exposure to birth control pills does not increase the risk of miscarriage,” she said, adding that this has been proved by extensive research. Miscarriages are pretty common—about 15 to 20% of pregnancies end in miscarriage—but it has nothing to do with the pill.

How the Pill Works

The pill is composed of progesterone and estrogen, hormones that are already produced inside the female body, she explained.

Here’s how it works: During pregnancy, certain hormones “switch off” a woman’s ovaries so she does not ovulate (in other words, release new eggs). This is so she can’t get pregnant part-way through an existing pregnancy. (It’s a good thing nature gave women a brake switch like that!)

The pill mimics the hormone levels a woman has when she’s pregnant, so—just like pregnancy itself—the pill prevents ovulation. That’s why the pill is effective: If a woman doesn’t ovulate, she can’t get pregnant.

But the effects of the pill don’t last—in other words, the pill does not cause infertility. “Once a woman stops taking the pill [every day], she should begin ovulating again,” Intondi said—and that means she can get pregnant.

Instead of worrying about the pill, Intondi said, women should avoid risky behaviors that can in fact lead to infertility or miscarriage. “Certain sexually-transmitted infections, such as chlamydia if it goes untreated, could [possibly] cause infertility,” she said. But having regular screenings, and protecting yourself with condoms if you have sex, “is the best way to guard against that happening,” she added.

Ask, Ask Again

Since careless behaviors put you at risk, rather than taking the pill—which is actually a responsible thing to do—I wondered where all these rumors come from. Intondi said they surface from misinformation and quick judgments made before someone listens to all the facts.

“Sometimes if you only get part of the story, there can be miscommunication. Going on the Internet, you may get information that’s not correct,” she said. She added that it’s important to educate yourself and learn which risks are false and which are real. She recommended seeking advice from a doctor or a health professional you trust.

Also, don’t be afraid to ask questions when speaking to your health care professional. It’s their job to help you understand your health, and you should keep asking questions until you’re clear. You might also ask if they have a leaflet that they can give you on reproductive health issues.

image by YC-Art Dept

It is true that the pill can have side effects—such as upset stomach or mood changes—and because of this, negative associations may linger in the back of some people’s minds. But, Intondi said, “There are no long-term negative effects of the birth control pill.”

Right for You

There are also many types of birth control pills. Different brands have slightly different hormone dosages, which means that if you experience upset stomach or mood changes on one type of pill, you can try a different type that may work better for you.

Teens also need to remember that the pill and other hormone-based methods only prevent pregnancy. The pill is 99% effective in doing that, but it does not prevent sexually transmitted infections. Therefore, if you’re having sex, you should still use a condom every time.

Next time you hear something negative about the pill, remember: Misinformation leads to confusion. Take the time to make sure you have real information instead.

Additional source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention


Preventing Pregnancy

There are several methods of hormone-based birth control, and they all require a trip to the doctor to get. Below, we explain a little bit about each type, but if you’re not sure which method is right for you, Planned Parenthood offers a questionnaire to help you select one at: plannedparenthood.org/all-access.

You still need to use condoms to protect against STDs, but these methods provide excellent protection against pregnancy when used properly.

The Pill: You take one tablet a day. With perfect use (taking it every day), fewer than one out of 100 women will become pregnant. You have to remember to take it at the same time every day, even if you’re not planning to have sex.

The Patch: This thin piece of plastic, no bigger than a matchbook, is worn on the buttocks, stomach, upper arm or upper torso (but never on the breasts). You use one patch per week for three weeks in a row; on the fourth week, you don’t wear a patch and your period should start. Effectiveness is the same as the pill.

The Ring: This is a soft and flexible plastic ring that’s inserted into the vagina. You leave it in for three weeks and then wear no ring for a week. Effectiveness is similar to the pill and the patch.

Depo-Provera: This is a shot that a health professional injects into your system every 11-13 weeks. Fewer than one out of 100 women who use Depo-Provera consistently for a year will get pregnant.

Implantable Contraception (Implanon): This is a matchstick-sized plastic tube containing hormones that doctors insert just under the skin of your upper arm. It protects against pregnancy for up to three years. Fewer than one out of 100 women using Implanon will get pregnant.

—From youthsuccessnyc.org

This story is part of the media/news literacy series, which is generously supported by the McCormick Foundation.

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(NYC-2011-02-06)

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