Top 7 Birth Control and Abortion Myths

We all know that standard (a.k.a. latex and polyurethane) condoms don’t have little holes in them to let the AIDS swim right through (as a woman accompanying Brother Jed once solemnly told me), that the amount of birth control pills someone takes doesn’t correlate with the amount of sex they are having, and that you don’t get STIs from having sex during menstruation (true story: one religious book I read claimed this was the case), right? One would hope.

On the other hand, there are plenty of notions floating around concerning the prevention of dropping unwanted crotch-fruit that are simply false, but make sense on some level.

#7: Hormone-laden pee is destroying the fish population.

This was one that I fell for, and I’m not the only skeptically-minded person who did. After all, it makes somewhat intuitive sense: the Pill is the most common form of birth control; all people pee, including people who take the Pill; therefore, you do the math. The story has been making headlines for a little while now.

As it turns out, according to a study from the University of San Francisco (via the ever-excellent RH Reality Check):

birth control pills contribute only a negligible amount of estrogen to the water supply, and this estrogen is minimal or nonexistent in drinking water. In fact, estrogen from the pill is only one among thousands of estrogen-mimicking chemicals that appear in rivers and streams — almost all come from industry, agriculture, landfills, and other sources.

I’m sure many of us are disappointed that our mighty urine is incapable of destroying all of the poor little fishies.

#6: Lactation is an effective birth control method.

Practically speaking, spacing out births makes sense. Of course our bodies would do their thing, right? It’s been proven that breastfeeding suppresses fertility.

The problem with relying on breastfeeding as a method of birth control is that, in order for it to be effective, a new mother has to exclusively nurse her child. This means no supplementing with outside food to ensure sufficient lactation for fertility suppression. For a lot of mothers, the stress of being a new parent to an infant can be exacerbated by breastfeeding issues. After all, just because it’s “natural” doesn’t mean it’s easy.  It’s not at all uncommon for a new mother to supplement breastfeeding with formula feeding.

Additionally, this method only works for six months, tops. It’s much safer for a nursing mother to use another method of pregnancy prevention (that doesn’t affect milk supply, of course).

#5: People who have abortions are more prone to mental health issues.

As adamantly pro-choice as I am, I hereby guiltily admit that I sometimes thought that this might make sense. An abortion is a Big Deal and women need counseling and such afterwards. As it turns out, that is wrong. In fact, the study that “proved” this to be the case was flawed in several ways. As with the fish issue, though, I doubt anti-choice websites will be updating their information anytime soon with the further findings.

Oh, and terminating a pregnancy is actually safer than carrying it to term and giving birth.

#4: Condoms have an [insert percentage here] failure rate.

This is one that people love to tout when preaching against sex. I’ve heard people claim all kinds of numbers, anywhere from 7% to even 20%, in terms of condom failure rate.

The failure rate most commonly cited is not that which is associated with condoms themselves, but human error. Condoms themselves are 98% effective with perfect use. Via Pervocracy (which has its own myths list that is quite worth perusing):

All “perfect use” means in the case of condoms is using them every time, and using them for the entire duration of PIV sex. There’s a few more catches–you shouldn’t reuse condoms, you should throw them away instead of turning them inside out if you put them on wrong the first time, you should use lube but nothing oil-based, and you shouldn’t double-bag–but honestly, most of those are statistically minor. The biggest factor in “perfect use” of condoms is actually using them.

Apparently, “failure rate” means something like “failure to use the things in the first place,” not “condoms failing.”

#3: “Pull-out” and the “rhythm method” don’t work.

The former refers to the practice where penile-vaginal intercourse occurs, but ejaculation occurs outside of the vagina. The reason cited by most people as to why withdrawal doesn’t work is the notion that pre-ejaculatory fluid could contain sperm and thus impregnate someone. However, this is a rare occurrence and urinating before sexual activity eliminates the risk. The main issue with the pull-out method is that it relies on a level of knowledge and self-control that is not innate but takes a great deal of practice. As with condoms, this is an issue of human fallibility, not a failure of the method itself.

The so-called “rhythm method,” also known as natural family planning and the fertility awareness method, is where a person charts and tracks menstrual cycles in order to determine fertility levels. There are many ways of determining fertility level, including temperature-taking, mucus-checking, and testing. The problem with this method is that, as with withdrawal, it’s highly prone to human error. Not all people have consistent cycles and not all people are disciplined enough to adhere to sex schedules (or use alternative methods when fertile).

#2: IUDs are only for people who have given birth and are less safe than the Pill.

The first notion comes from some very outdated information. In the past, IUDs were considered viable options only for people who had given birth, i.e. people whose cervices had been dilated already. Modern IUDs are perfectly safe and suitable for people who have never given birth. Those who have never given birth are more likely to have an IUD expel, but expulsion is still a fairly rare occurrence.

The second misconception comes from history. The infamous Dalkon Shield was a type of IUD that caused all sorts of problems and gave IUDs a bad name. Modern IUDs are safe and effective as well as growing in popularity for their convenience and lower dose of, or complete lack of, hormones.

On a related note, though the Pill is often considered the default non-barrier birth control option, there are many options out there that might be better for some people. Planned Parenthood has an excellent, easy-to-take test to determine which form is best for you.

#1: Because of Roe v. Wade, any American can get an abortion.

Abortion might be legal, but access to it is definitely not widespread in the U.S. Anything from cost to regional availability to state restrictions can make getting an abortion almost impossible. A Supreme Court case in favor of reproductive choice means nothing to someone who lives in a rural area and lacks access to money and transportation.

Note: I tried my best to avoid unnecessarily-gendered/cissexist language in this piece; the sources I cite are not necessarily as language-aware as I wish I could find. If I’ve made any errors or you have any suggestions, please let me know.

Main photo via.

Update (3/11/12): After several commenters rightly pointed out that it was from a questionable source, I have removed the reference to the statistics sheet from The Business of Being Born.

Top 7 Birth Control and Abortion Myths

38 thoughts on “Top 7 Birth Control and Abortion Myths

  1. 1

    “you shouldn’t reuse condoms, you should throw them away instead of turning them inside out”

    And please dispose of them properly. Actually throw them in a trash can, and not just out the car window.

  2. 2

    “and that you don’t get STIs from having sex during menstruation (true story: one religious book I read claimed this was the case)”

    One group that preached at my college claimed that you got cancer from giving blow jobs. You see, sperms’ purpose is to give life. And if you get it in your mouth, it can’t find an egg, but it still wants to give life, so it joins with a normal cell, and Bang! you have cancer.

    1. 2.1

      Could you imagine if that were really the case?! All women who have sex without condoms would have vaginal and uterine cancer (after all, only the one little guy gets to fertilize the egg – all the rest need something to do!).

      Also, mutant Kleenex tissues would have taken over the planet by now.

      1. And so many dudes with hand and abdominal cancer. And to take that logic further, wouldn’t all men then eventually die of testicular cancer?

    2. 2.3

      To be fair, there actually has been a slight increase in oral and esophageal cancers related to HPV due to more widespread oral sex in recent decades. But, this is why we have vaccines for that shit!!

  3. 3

    This is a little bit OT, but why is it necessary in Viagra and Cialis commercials to include in the disclaimers that they don’t prevent transmission of STIs? How could anyone possibly think that they might do so? Is it actually a myth that some people believe or just CYA by Big Pharma? More proof of the extraordinary ignorance of the American public on matters of reproductive health. One last question: does Rush believe this, and do the little spirochetes munching on his brain explain the rest of his behavior?

    1. 3.1

      I’ve always thought that odd, as well. They do the same with the Pill, too; it has a disclaimer on the box telling you that it doesn’t prevent STIs.

      Do people really think that there’s some magic pill you can take that will put up an invisible shield around your genitals?

    1. 4.1

      I couldn’t find any other convenient data sheet about how dangerous birth is in the US compared to other developed countries. What is your particular objection to BoBB?

      1. Not to speak for modernmornon, but BOBB reflects an ideological position rather than rigorous science. There is a high probability that the primary sources you cite for BOBB are cherry-picked to support the homebirth ideology and do not reflect the current bulk of the medical literature regarding homebith vs hospital birth safety in the US.

        1. I appreciate the criticism, but since you seem to know more about the criticisms of BoBB than I do, I’d to know whether or not the stats are cherry-picked, not that there is a high probability of that being the case. All of the criticism of BoBB that I found took it to task for advocating home birth (which I do not do), not for the argument that birth is worse in the US compared to other developed nations.

      2. BOBB is complete pseudoscience. It is the childbirth equivalent of an anti-vax movie.

        Moreover, the US does NOT have terrible pregnancy statistics. According to the World Health Organization, the best measure of obstetric care is perinatal mortality and according to the WHO, the US has one of the lowest perinatal mortality rates in the world. Ricki Lake conveniently “forgets” to mention that and instead substitutes the infant mortality, a measure of pediatric care.

        The US maternal mortality rate is not higher than other developed countries., particularly when controlled for risk. The US has far better reporting of maternal mortality than almost any other first world country. Reporting rules were revised in 1999 and 2003 and almost of the purported “increase” in maternal mortality in the US occured in the immediate aftermath of the reporting changes.

        It is true that pregnancy has a higher mortality rate than abortion, but that applies in every country and has nothing to do with the country’s maternal mortality statistics.

        1. Do you have any citations on that? I generally only make major edits on a piece when I have something to back it up, and so far, while two of you have offered criticism, neither of you have offered links. My search for alternate statistics has come up dry.

          1. I have citations for anything you could possibly desire.

            The place to start for accurate data on US mortality statistics is the CDC and the National Center for Health Statistics.

            The key point is that a movie made by a washed up talk show host (or ANY movie, ANY TV show or ANY main stream media article) is NEVER an apprpriate citation for information on any science topic.

          2. Looking at the number on, the latest report shows the neonatal mortality rate for the USA at 4 deaths per 1000 live births. While this is indeed in the same category as Poland, Malta, and Hungary, it is also shared by Canada and many others. As to whether this is the “second worst […] in the developed world”, seems highly dependent on the definition of “developed world”. Canada and the USA do share the 2nd worst rate within the G8 though, with Russia taking last place.

            As to the “midwives were used as their main source of care for 70 percent of the birthing mothers” part, I cannot comment on the accuracy; but looking at wikipedia, it seems the home birth rate in Japan was 1.2% in 1975, which strikes me as indicating that midwives are present in the hospital, as in most countries. Still far from a home birth that…

          3. A paper published in the BMJ, 2/17/2012, explains why most international comparisons are invalid. Simply put, with the exception of the US and Canada, most countries exclude live born premature babies from mortality statistics:

            “RESULTS: The proportion of live births under 500 g varied widely from less than 1 per 10?000 live births in Belgium and Ireland to 10.8 per 10?000 live births in Canada and 16.9 in the United States. Neonatal deaths under 500 g, as a proportion of all neonatal deaths, also ranged from less than 1% in countries such as Luxembourg and Malta to 29.6% in Canada and 31.1% in the United States. Rankings of countries based on crude fetal, neonatal, and infant mortality rates differed substantially from rankings based on rates calculated after exclusion of births with a birth weight of less than 1000 g or a gestational age of less than 28 weeks.

            CONCLUSIONS: International differences in reported rates of extremely low birthweight and very early gestation births probably reflect variations in registration of births and compromise the validity of international rankings of perinatal and infant mortality.”

          4. @AmyTuteurMD: The data on actually seem to be halfways decent. Belgium is running at 2/1000, ditto for Ireland.
            Then again, that is probably not too surprising, as this is the official UNICEF / UN PD / WHO / World Bank site for this information. So I would be a bit disconcerted if they didn’t clean up the numbers before publishing them. 🙂

          5. Alright, in deference to the controversy, I’ll remove the BoBB citation. I will need to do a lot of research before I can comment on it.

          6. It’s a complex issue, and one that I certainly don’t fully understand. Which is why I thought the opinion of an actual medical professional might be helpful. There are a lot of parallels between the ideology of BoBB and the anti-vaccine movement. I guess my thought is that if the consensus scientific opinion supports your claim, there are probably multiple other more credible sources to cite.

  4. 5

    I might be wrong, but I’m thinking that #2 may be the on with the largest discordance where people didn’t know the real story.

    I know/knew/worked with the people who brought the “lactation method” to the US, rather by accident, from a field site in southern Africa. It started as a classic case of bad reporting gone viral and probably caused numerous pregnancies. One of the myths within a myth is that primitive brown people could not possibly have any other methods of birth control but the native reactions their body has, so the long term lack of babies after birth of one offspring must be incidental to something, and lactation seemed a good candidate.

    Thanks for the informative piece.

    1. 5.2

      This seems like a pretty complicated scenario, compared to the alternative hypothesis: nursing women notice that their period hasn’t come back, often for a year or more, and figure that they aren’t fertile.

      The fact that nursing affects fertility (although not perfectly, obviously) has probably been known for centuries; that’s why, historically, you sometimes see things like girl babies being weaned early so the parents could try for a boy.

  5. 6

    You know what is far more dangerous to fish than birth-control pills? Invasive species.

    You know what is far more dangerous to women’s health than birth-control pills? Invasive species (AKA a baby).


  6. 8

    How about that billboard Bulldada about “abortions haunt you for the rest of your life?”

    Considering the number of us who have routine miscarriages (and not-so routine), we’re not all marking the days of our “babies’ deaths” on our calendars and mourning on the anniversaries. This is a myth spread by anti-and-pro-choicers alike.

  7. 9

    Regarding #7, there is a grain of truth here, but not in the way that the anti-choice crowd thinks: dangers to the water supply which come from medications are overwhelmingly due to people flushing *unused* meds down the drain/toilet or other improper methods of disposal.

    So are birth control pills a problem for local marine life? Sure, if you’re buying birth control pills for the express purpose of flushing them down the toilet, unused. Though if that’s your goal, it’d be more efficient to find out the source of your local water supply and dump them in there.

    So just remember to dispose of unused medications properly; ask your pharmacist how if you’re unsure.

      1. I agree; maybe “grain of truth” was too strong of a phrase, really: it’s more like “Medicine ending up in the water supply is a real problem and that’s where the similarities end, because birth control hormone excreted in urine isn’t a contributing factor to said problem.”

  8. 10

    We all know that condoms don’t have little holes in them to let the AIDS swim right through

    In the early days of the HIV scare, the official advice was to use synthetic rather than natural condoms precisely because the natural, sheep intestine condoms did have pores that could pass something the size of HIV. I have seen natural condoms used as cheap semi-permeable membranes in chemistry demos, FWIW.

    Note: I tried my best to avoid unnecessarily-gendered/cissexist language in this piece

    I am pretty sure that “unwanted crotch fruit” are a problem unique to cis-gendered individuals, unless the sex re-assignment surgery has improved remarkably.

    1. 10.1

      The condoms thing was said in reference to latex and polyurethane condoms, i.e. the kind distributed by the UC Irvine student health center. They don’t even stock animal skin condoms. I added some words to clarify.

      “I am pretty sure that “unwanted crotch fruit” are a problem unique to cis-gendered individuals, unless the sex re-assignment surgery has improved remarkably.”

      Actually, not all trans people get SRS. Financial concerns are sometimes a reason why a trans person might not get SRS, but some trans people do not *want* SRS for various reasons. Remember the pregnant man, Thomas Beatie ( He chose to forgo SRS and to carry and give birth to his children.

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