If you have a uterus and use contraceptives you might have tried out the pill, or the IUD, or the nuvaring, or a hormone injection, or the patch… or perhaps (and most likely) you have tried out a few. Turns out, most people with uteruses that use contraceptives, or 72%, try on average 3.4 types of contraceptives throughout their lifetime. Surprised? Maybe not if you adhere to this group. At least when me and my menstruating friends talk about contraceptives we have all tried out a few, and some of us have had pretty shitty experiences. This is kind of tragic considering the fact that there are so many options out there. So let us talk a bit about why contraceptives are not better and how that is gendered.
When it comes to the primary health goals of contraceptives, being effective at preventing pregnancy takes the throne. However, what this often means is that when people with uteruses make a doctor’s appointment to get birth control they will be faced with a “choiceless choice” as the sole purpose for the doctor is to provide the most effective birth control and other issues such as side effects are thereby dismissed. People using hormonal contraceptives for example often feel various side effects that they wish they could avoid and a big reason for people to quit using hormonal contraceptives is because they have bad experiences with side effects. Many people face anxiety in relation to hormonal contraceptives expressing that they are afraid that the usage will have long term impact on their health and increase the risk of cancer. Moreover, people fear using hormonal contraceptives due to the side effects. So, since there are multiple issues with contraceptives why aren’t they better? Let’s add gender into the equation:
Most contraceptives on the market are designed for people with uteruses, the external condom being a popular exception. However, haven’t we all heard the phrase: “It doesn’t feel as good” from, most likely, a guy? This phrase perhaps crystallises the issue at hand: society is a bit more okay with women and other minoritised groups taking on the burden, discomfort and pain than men. Case in point we can consider the discussion regarding J&J COVID-19 vaccination side effects versus. the contraceptive pill. Doctors were concerned that blood clot risk was too high in J&J vaccination and stopped administering it for a little while. At the same time, risk for blood clots is higher in contraceptive pills but no one is stopping people with uteruses from taking them.
Moreover, research and trials for contraceptives geared towards people with penises like hormone gel have been undergone and shown great results. However, they have not yet reached the market because, well, money. Funding the entire process has so far been very difficult and one may wonder if the reason for lack of money for such products may be because the status quo is pretty much in favour of men. And, this also applies when we consider that side effects like blood clots are still fairly high today when it comes to the pill and there isn’t a big focus on changing that at the moment.
Another caveat of contraceptives is through intersectionality. Contraceptives can be highly political, racist and ableist. In 2022, a case made headlines in the Nordic countries highlighting that the government of Denmark forced thousands of young Greenlandic girls and women to use the IUD, often without their knowledge and consent, in the 1960s and 1970s (the government of Denmark and Greenland are now investigating the case further). Similarly, there are various cases of disabled women being forced to use birth control. These cases bring up the question of who society sees fit to be a parent and what types of bodies are “acceptable”.
However, I’m not here only to talk contraceptives down because there is in fact yet another gendered aspect of contraceptives worth exploring: the freedom it provides people with uteruses. Contraceptives of course make it easier for people to prevent unwanted pregnancy. This comes with many freedoms, especially considering that, within the traditional nuclear family, women are more likely to take on greater responsibilities in the parenting role than men. Moreover, in poorer countries and communities, access to contraceptives is vital as it for example helps to delay pregnancies among young girls and prevents unsafe abortions. Contraceptives are therefore essential for people with uteruses and arguably for society as a whole. Perhaps we could just make them a bit better?