Female Birth Control 101

Family planning has come a long way in the U.S. since an underground movement after World War II. A handful of products were available if you knew where to look, and cryptic terms for various means of contraception would be used. Terms like: marital aid, hygienic device, and womb supporter. The first contraceptive pill wasn’t approved by the Food and Drug Administration until 1960. And soon after, college attendance and graduation rates among women soared. Today, 75 percent of married or in-union women in North America use some form of contraception. Around 51 percent of those women credit the use of birth control to their improved health, happier home life, and the ability to get an education or hold a job without worrying about an unplanned pregnancy.


The purpose of birth control is to prevent pregnancy in women who either don’t want children or wish to postpone their pregnancy until a more convenient time. Contraception is also a blessing for women whose health would be endangered by pregnancy and childbirth.

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Contraceptive products are more effective than ever before. The four discussed in this article range from 91 to 99 percent effectiveness when used exactly as directed.

Greater attention to reproductive health has also resulted in safer contraceptive products. Hormonal contraceptives even offer some health benefits. Depending on which method you choose, some studies report clearer skin, healthier bones, or decreased risk for certain cancers.

The best contraceptive methods require a prescription. Most insurance plans help with cost, and some products are made available to lower-income women on a sliding scale.

None of these products get in the way of intercourse, so spontaneity is an added perk. However, it’s important to note that they do not prevent sexually transmitted diseases; only condoms can do that.

Not all the methods below are recommended for everyone, and each has its pros and cons. If you’re 35 or older and smoke, you should not use any form of contraception that contains estrogen. Keep reading so that you can make the informed decision that’s best for you.

Oral Contraceptive Pill

Birth control pills contain estrogen, progestin, or both to stop ovulation and prevent pregnancy. For added security, progestin thickens the mucus on the cervix. That makes it harder for sperm to reach the egg if ovulation somehow occurred.

When taken at the same time every day without a single missed dose, the pill is up to 99 percent effective. Around 9 in 100 women get pregnant each year while taking oral contraceptives, but most pregnancies result from forgetting to take pills or refill prescriptions on time.

There are two basic types of oral contraceptives: progestin-only, which don’t contain estrogen, and combination pills. There are several brands and regimens to choose from, so thoroughly discuss your health history and lifestyle with your doctor. Be sure that you understand when you can start and stop the pill cycle without risk of becoming pregnant.


  • Convenience
  • For both progestin-only and combination pills — Regulation of periods, lighter and less painful periods, decreased symptoms of premenstrual syndrome and decreased risk of ectopic pregnancy
  • For combination pills — Prevention for pelvic inflammatory disease, bone thinning, cysts in the breasts and ovaries, infections in the reproductive organs, acne and anemia


  • Risk of pregnancy when pills are missed or taken at inconsistent times
  • Having to refill a prescription once a month

IUD (or Intrauterine device)

The IUD is possibly the most effective form of birth control available. It works long term, and is easily reversible.

A tiny, T-shaped piece of plastic is inserted through the vagina and into the uterus. The procedure takes about five minutes, and the device is out of sight and out of mind. Depending on their expiration dates, IUDs may remain in place anywhere from three to 12 years. They are easily removed if you decide that you want to get pregnant.

There are two types of IUDs: copper and hormonal. Copper is very unfriendly to sperm cells and limits their motion, whereas hormonal IUDs work just like the pill.

Some copper IUDs have the added benefit of being effective in emergencies. If the device is put in place within five days of unprotected sex, it’s more than 99.9 percent effective.


  • Long term protection
  • Invisibility
  • With hormonal IUDs, the same potential health benefits as the combination pill


  • Cost of up to $1,300 before insurance or other funding
  • Small possibility of the device becoming dislodged
  • Possibility of discomfort for the first few weeks

Contraceptive Patch

The patch was invented for women who can’t remember to take their birth control pills. Estrogen and progestin are absorbed through the skin rather than ingested.

The small, square, flesh-colored patch adheres to the belly, back, upper arm or bottom. It should not be applied to the breasts. The patched is changed once a week for three weeks straight. The fourth week in the cycle is patch-free. The patch is 99 percent effective when used correctly.


  • Has the same potential health benefits as the combination pill
  • Stays on even if it gets wet
  • Removal and replacement only necessary once a week


  • Delayed fertility for up to two months after quitting the patch
  • Visibility on the skin
  • Rare instances of the patch falling off
  • Skin irritation in some users

Birth Control Shot

The contraceptive shot contains progestin and works like the pill. It is only effective if you get a new shot every three months. A nurse or doctor must administer it, so you must plan your yearly injection schedule and watch the calendar. If all the injections are on time, the shot is 99 percent effective.


  • Prevents pregnancy for three months at a time


  • Pain with injections
  • Up to 10 months of delayed fertility after stopping the shot
  • Having to remember to schedule and keep appointments
  • Temporary loss of bone density

Schedule plenty of time with your doctor to discuss the rare risks and side effects of each method, but rest assured that all are largely safe.