Issue 12  •  Spring 2013

Adventures in Contraception

Written by Kendall McKenzie
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I’ve had a love/hate relationship with birth control ever since I went on the pill at age sixteen. I loved its benefits (clear skin, lighter and more regular periods, and—obvs—no babies), but I hated having to cough up thirty dollars a month, and dealing with the side effects, which for me included spotting, excessive weight gain, and a general feeling of unbalance and nastiness. Eventually the cons outweighed the pros, and at age twenty-two, six years after we met, I broke up with the pill.
Photos by JLS
 
I’ve had a love/hate relationship with birth control ever since I went on the pill at age sixteen. I loved its benefits (clear skin, lighter and more regular periods, and—obvs—no babies), but I hated having to cough up thirty dollars a month, and dealing with the side effects, which for me included spotting, excessive weight gain, and a general feeling of unbalance and nastiness. Eventually the cons outweighed the pros, and at age twenty-two, six years after we met, I broke up with the pill.
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The difference between the way I felt on and off hormones was astronomical, not to mention the unbelievable amount of bloaty weight that melted off in the following years. All of this led me to issue a personal embargo against hormonal contraception. (I should note that my reaction to ditching the pill was extraordinarily rare, so let’s not have legions of young ladies tossing their pills in hopes of squeezing into a size two, eh?)

Swearing off hormones, however, left me with few birth control options. I was nervous about relying solely on condoms (I’m a firm believer in a two-method line of defense when it comes to not getting knocked up), so I researched other methods and decided I wanted the ParaGard (Copper T) IUD, a plastic, T-shaped “intrauterine device” wrapped with copper that prevents pregnancy non-hormonally by affecting sperm motility. But my ob-gyn totally shot down my request, claiming they were unsafe for ladies who have never had children.

This is a common roadblock for young women trying to obtain an IUD, even though the most recent research indicates that the difference in the risk of complications for women who have birthed vs women who haven’t is so small, it’s negligible. Unfortunately, many gynecologists aren’t necessarily up-to-date on the latest in reproductive technology, and plenty of people are also overly skeptical about IUDs because of the disastrous Dalkon Shield (an inadequately tested early ’70s version with a unique design flaw that caused serious and sometimes fatal complications), so IUDs frequently get an unfairly bad rap.

Rejected by my doctor, I was forced to rely on condoms and luck for about ten months—until the night one broke…really broke. A frantic search for emergency contraception the next morning led me to a Planned Parenthood health center, where the nurse who administered my EC pills and listened patiently to me gripe about my ob-gyn told me that the doctors there would be able to give me an IUD (assuming I was a proper physical candidate for one). A month later, thanks to Planned Parenthood of New York City, my uterus was the proud owner of a ParaGard IUD, a long-term but entirely reversible hormone-free form of birth control that lasts for ten to twelve years. I was elated.

You wouldn’t think it, but IUDs are the most common reversible method of birth control worldwide and, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, are used by ninety million women, despite their relative obscurity in the United States. Surveys show that most American women have a negative view of IUDs…except the ones who use them. According to David A. Grimes’ Contraceptive Technology, 99 percent of women who use IUDs report being happy with the method. My theory on this country’s anti-IUD ’tude is that: a. people simply don’t know enough about them (or that they even exist at all), and b. our hyper-medicated masses are much more willing to chow down a pill every day than undergo a minor internal procedure. After all, it’s not exactly in the pharmaceutical companies’ best interest to promote a method that doesn’t entail plunking down a chunk of cash every thirty days, and it’s not like this country encourages honest and factual dialogue about women’s reproductive options, ergo, rarely do IUDs get advertised, promoted, or discussed.

Nonetheless, IUDs are enjoying a relative renaissance right now. Ob-gyns are seeing more and more requests from young women sick of drowning in a sea of pills, patches, shots, implants, and rings, and the media is revisiting the IUD’s role in our menagerie of birth control options, honoring it with inquisitive op-eds and articles galore. Increasingly available research on their unbeatable effectiveness rate and safety record has encouraged doctors to reconsider previously negative attitudes and recommend IUDs to more and more patients. Inspired by the recent financial and health care clusterfuck, broads in danger of losing their health insurance are flocking to make frantic IUD insertion appointments so they can nab themselves long-term, reliable birth control without having to shell out at the pharmacy every month. Indeed, IUDs are incredibly cost-effective, even though the onetime initial payment seems high. While they can set you back between $150-$650 bucks out of pocket, consider that IUDs last between five to twelve years (depending on the type)—math it out month to month, and the cost is downright unbeatable.

Like most things, my ParaGard IUD also has its downsides. My periods are craptastically long and heavy, and I occasionally get some pretty gnarly cramps, which is precisely why the ideal candidates for a ParaGard are women who have short, light, and generally painless periods. But a week long period feels like a small price to pay for birth control that is pretty perfect for me otherwise, and if a heavy flow isn’t really your style, the other available type of IUD called Mirena has been known to severely reduce or even eliminate menstrual bleeding, due to a small, localized dose of pregnancy-preventing hormones.

I had to really fight for my IUD, but it was worth it, which just goes to show the importance of education and being aware of your options. Sometimes you know what’s better for you than your doctor does, and while I never suggest going against the advice of a medical professional, I think it’s worthwhile to have an assertive dialogue with your practitioner if you fundamentally disagree with their birth control recommendations. (By the way, my gynecologist eventually came around and admitted that she now approves of my IUD in light of the newer research.)

Since I got mine back in ’06, a large number of my girlfriends became hip to the trend as well, and all but one have been incredibly happy with their choice. Most of the women I know who use an IUD opted for a Mirena because of the period-lightening benefits, but those of us who avoid hormones like the plague are thankful to have the ParaGard. IUDs provide a solution to many of the gripes that most of us have about other methods of birth control—remembering it every day, interrupts sex, annoying side effects, expensive, ineffective, etc.—and though they’re not right for everybody, I encourage you to talk to your doctor about getting an IUD if you’ve been considering one. My IUD has been life changing for me, and I’m so thankful to have finally found a method of birth control that I’m happy with.

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