Birth control sometimes fails.
It seems like a really obvious fact –- if you’ve ever spent about five seconds reading the informational packet that comes with your pills, ring, patches, etc., you’ll see a clearly-marked chart detailing the typical failure rate of just about every form of birth control imaginable.
And yet, somehow, the one thing that anti-abortion and pro-choice activists seem to be able to agree on is this: that women who have multiple abortions are irresponsible sluts who are too stupid to figure out how to use condoms or get a prescription for the pill. Obviously.
It never seems to occur to people that it’s possible to accidentally get pregnant no matter how responsible you are, or how hard you work to avoid pregnancy to begin with.
Certainly, not everyone has the resources to behave “responsibly” -- access to affordable birth control is an issue for many low-income women, and they have just as much right to safe, affordable abortion services as anyone else. But the truth of the matter is, as much as we’d all like it to be, contraception is not 100% effective. You can use it flawlessly and still end up unexpectedly pregnant.
I should know. It’s happened to me twice, on two different forms of birth control: the progestin-only pill and the copper IUD.
To be fair, the pill I was on is a little less reliable than the combination pills that contain estrogen -- with a failure rate of 3-5% rather than 1-2%. My mother had a massive blood clot when I was a teenager due to the estrogen in her pills, and we don’t know if there’s a hereditary risk, so I just preferred to exchange the slight risk of pregnancy with the slight risk of severe injury or death.
I’m lucky that, both times, I had a partner by my side who supported my decision 100%. The first time, we’d only been dating about 4 months. Both of us were in school and neither of us had the money to take care of a child. One of us would have had to drop out to make it work. I probably would have had to quit my part-time job. We might have ended up living with our parents to make ends meet and secure childcare. It was an easy choice to make. After the procedure, I had the less failure-prone IUD put in, with high hopes. It worked without too many problems for about two years.
The second time, we were married. I was trapped in nightmarish hellhole of a job, barely making ends meet in a foreign country, with a boss whose crazy demands left me too fatigued to function and caused me to develop stress-induced migraines. In the previous couple of years, I’d learned I was host to all kinds of lovely hereditary diseases, like celiac disease, debilitating anxiety issues, and a family history of freaking leukemia. My husband and I had talked long and hard about our attitudes toward parenting not long before I got pregnant, and agreed that we were not financially or emotionally equipped to raise well-adjusted children, and that if we ever were, it would be better to adopt than risk passing on my family’s horrible health problems. This time, it was an even easier choice.
Our story isn’t really rare or uncommon. According to the Guttmacher Institute, a whopping 49% of pregnancies are unplanned. About 5% of those cases occur with women who are using birth control perfectly, and another 43% with those who use birth control less consistently. And let’s be honest, that’s probably most people.
Why don’t we hear about birth control failure more often? If I had to guess, I’d give two reasons. The first is probably because a huge number of women were planning to have kids eventually, so an “oops” baby isn’t a life-shattering ordeal. They just have the kid. The second is that most women who have an abortion when their contraception fails don’t want to talk about it. With the verbal abuse hurled at us, I don’t blame anyone for staying silent. Hell, I don’t talk about it that often either. (Fun fact: my cousin once told me she literally hoped I would drop dead after my first abortion!)
I have exactly zero regrets about my abortions, but I can’t honestly say they didn’t affect me. Abortion is physically traumatic, especially if you’re already in poor health. The first time, I had a medical abortion -- the actual abortion pill, not Plan B -- and sat on the toilet for hours with cramps and diarrhea so bad I actually thought I might die. (Seriously, I had my boyfriend call the clinic’s emergency line more than once that night.) The second time, I opted for outpatient surgery and was left with low blood pressure and anemia that lingered for weeks. It took months before I felt anything resembling normal.
It took even longer before I could have sex with my husband again without fear. It wasn’t fair to him, and it made us both miserable. But I lived in terror of accidentally getting pregnant again. I took the pill on top of my supposedly low-maintenance IUD for the next year, for added protection. I still don’t know if I’ll ever escape the nagging worry each time my period draws near.
Luckily, I now have amazing insurance at my new job, and a great new ob/gyn who was happy to tackle the challenge of my super-fertility. (She’s told me to come in any time if I decide I just want to be sterilized. That seems a little too invasive for me considering my ongoing health issues, but it’s nice to have a doctor who actually offers the option to a childless 28-year-old.) I now have a copper IUD and a hormonal implant installed to ensure that there is almost zero chance of another “accident.” If I weren’t sensitive to latex condoms and the available latex-free options actually came in more than one size, I’d probably add a third layer of protection to the mix, just to be extra-extra-safe.
Both of these forms of birth control are expensive and kind of painful to have inserted. I have some unpleasant side effects like irregular bleeding and random cramps throughout the month. But it’s completely worth the peace of mind.
Although I’m a professional writer and outspoken pro-choice advocate, I went back and forth on whether to pitch this story anywhere for a year and a half. I didn’t know if I was ready to handle the inevitable backlash.
I know that despite being in a committed marriage with the love of my life, I’ll be called a slut. I know that despite taking ridiculous precautions above and beyond the call of duty to avoid pregnancy, someone out there will think I’m somehow irresponsible and probably send me hate mail about it. I know some unhinged person out there will be outraged that I’m not fulfilling my womanly destiny by having as many kids as possible, and that there will be people who suggest I should just completely abstain from sex with my husband until menopause.
But this is important. It’s an issue that affects millions of women in the U.S. alone, many of whom are simply not fortunate enough to have the easy access to abortion that I’ve had. If I’d had to travel hours out of state for a doctor’s appointment or been forced to take multiple days off work due to a mandatory waiting period, my life might be very different. And it’s an issue that just doesn’t manage to make it into the abortion debate.
We need to acknowledge that birth control failure exists and that it’s distressingly common. We can’t pretend that abortion will suddenly cease to exist if we guarantee universal access to contraception, although that’s a noble goal. We can’t keep treating women who’ve had abortions like idiots who refuse to take basic precautions to prevent pregnancy. And we can’t keep stigmatizing women who’ve had more than one abortion, as if it proves something about their character, morals or intelligence. We shouldn’t tell women they should be ashamed of something they simply couldn’t do anything to avoid.
Sometimes, the numbers are against you. Sometimes, it’s just bad luck.
And there just isn’t any reason to be ashamed about being unlucky.