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"Why Don't They just Use Birth Control?"

Reproduced from Abortion is a Blessing by Anne Nicol Gaylor.

WHENEVER I SPEAK ON ABORTION an inevitable question is: "Why don't women just use birth control?"

It is my own experience in referring women for abortions that about 38 percent of them are practicing birth control at the time they become pregnant. Some of the methods being used are most unreliable-- foam, rhythm, withdrawal, but people are trying. Out of each hundred women I refer, I can count on three or four of them having IUD's in place. Although most IUD failures seem to occur in the first year of use, I have referred a woman for abortion whose IUD had worked for her for nine years. Women getting pregnant with them after two or three years of successful use is not at all unusual. The Dalkon shield, the crab-shaped IUD so popular with physicians, is the most unreliable of the well-known IUD's. Recently it was withdrawn from the market, since it apparently was the cause of serious uterine infections, some fatal, in women who became pregnant while it was in place.

The pill, of course, is an effective method of birth control, but even with its good record of reliability some women still get pregnant on it--they do not forget to take it--there are occasional legitimate pill failures. One woman I referred for abortion became pregnant twice on the pill. The first time she carried her pregnancy to term, and then her doctor prescribed a stronger pill. She took it faithfully and she took it at the same time every day just to be very sure. And she conceived a second time, even on a high estrogen-content pill.

Although pill failures are relatively rare, serious reactions to the pill are common. Many women who have family histories of blood-clotting diseases should not take it at all. Women subject to migraine headaches, asthma, varicose veins or high blood pressure may worsen their conditions on it. Liver disease, kidney disease, diabetes, epilepsy, heart disease or defect, and cancer usually preclude use of the pill.

For many women the decision to take the pill is out of their hands because it makes them so sick--there is no question of their continuing on it. Unhappily many women stay on the pill despite side effects because their contraception options are so limited.

In addition to being so imperfect, contraception is still unavailable, especially to young people and to poor people. Many states still have laws restricting the visibility and accessibility of contraceptives. For instance in Wisconsin condoms legally may not be sold in machines, and crusader Bill Baird was arrested in 1971 for displaying "indecent articles" in a public lecture. Until a federal court ruling in November, 1974, unmarried persons in Wisconsin legally could not use contraceptives. As long as contraception remains as imperfect as it is and as unavailable as it is, we can expect women to resort to abortion.

Those who ask, "Why don't they just use birth control?" must be reminded that sex education is trivial or nonexistent in many schools. The student learns in the typical biology or health class that sex may result in pregnancy, but she/he is not told how to avoid that pregnancy. In addition, many Catholic women and men are brought up to believe that contraception is sinful, and consequently they take chances they would not take had this particular indoctrination not befallen them.

Getting pregnant is very easy. Educating people how not to get pregnant is a gargantuan task, especially in a state like Wisconsin, which has an anticontraceptive law uniquely constructed to make dissemination of information as difficult as possible.

Two very common causes of birth-control failure are dependence on a so-called "safe period," and using condoms for ejaculation only.

I am not a fan of billboards, but I would like to see a few on every major highway across the country saying, "There is no such thing as a safe period." Although most women are apt to conceive midway between periods, I have referred women for abortions whose only intercourse was just before a menstrual period, just after a menstrual period, even during a menstrual period. It is a fact that ovaries can release eggs any old time. The only way for someone to be reasonably sure she does not conceive is to use an effective method of birth control all the time.

Packages of condoms should carry instructions in big, bold print that this product must be used throughout intercourse if it is to be an effective method of birth control. Too often men do not use condoms throughout sex, but only for ejaculation. Sperms escape prior to ejaculation, and pregnancy results.

All of our present methods of birth control are very poor; all have serious shortcomings. The pill's chief liability is its unpleasant, sometimes dangerous side effects; the IUD its pain in insertion, the cramping and heavy menstrual flow it frequently causes, and its unreliability for many women. Foam, of course, is grossly unreliable, and despite what the ads say should never be used alone, only with condoms or a diaphragm. Condoms interfere with touch; many women have aesthetic objections to diaphragms or worry that they may slip out of position. So there you are. It's too bad some of the money we have spent on munitions could not have been spent on research for contraceptives.

When someone says to me, "Why don't women just use birth control?" I am reminded of the member of Birthright who called me long distance for abortion referral information. She was very distraught, half-crying and said, "I always thought of myself as helping these young girls. I never thought of women like me getting pregnant." Her method of birth control had always worked for her, and she was devastated when it failed.

When some woman shakes her head and says, "I could never have an abortion," through my mind pass the dozens and dozens of conversations I have had that started out with the caller saying, "I never dreamed I would be calling a service like yours ... I never believed in abortion ... I never thought I would want an abortion, but..."

Never is a long, long time.

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