HLI America is a part of Human Life International, a Catholic group opposed to birth control. So when I saw that they had released a survey of 800 women regarding hormonal contraceptive use, I took it with a grain of salt. Their interpretation emphasizes the negative; the HLI America website gives it the title “The Pill and America: What Women Don’t Know May be Hurting Them.”
Looking at the data from a different perspective, I see it as a mix of good news and bad news. Here are the findings that I think are most important:
Informed consent is lacking. This is HLI’s main point, and I agree that it’s disconcerting. For instance, only 40% of women reported that their doctors discussed the widely acknowledged risk of blood clots and stroke. Worse, 10% of young women age 15 to 17 reported getting their pills from a friend instead of seeing a doctor.
On the plus side, the vast majority of respondents were aware that hormonal contraceptives do not protect against sexually transmitted infections.
Women view contraception as a social good. A majority of American women believe that contraception has had a positive impact on society (64%, versus 19% neutral and 9% negative), marriages (56%-29%-6%), and the quality of relationships between men and women (57%-26%-8%). Breaking down the results by religious affiliation, a plurality of Catholics and a majority of evangelical and mainline Protestants view the pill as positive for society. To put it bluntly, when religious groups blame contraception for abortion, divorce, and other social ills, they aren’t only alienating the non-religious– they’re also alienating their supposed constituents!
The pill is pervasive. Only 12% of respondents over the age of 25 had never taken hormonal contraception. The majority of respondents in every religious subgroup, including Catholics, are on the pill or have been at some point in their lives. Roughly half of pill users began taking the pill at or before the age of 18, many at the suggestion of a parent. It’s common for women in their 30s and 40s to report having taken oral contraceptives for ten years or more.
But it isn’t just about contraception. While a majority of oral contraceptive users are on the pill to prevent pregnancy (61%), I expected the percentage to be much higher. Other reasons for being on the pill include regulating periods (21%), alleviating cramps (8%), and treating acne (4%). Catholic pharmacists who have qualms about distributing oral contraceptives should bear this in mind.
For most, sexual activity precedes going on the pill. This is true for every age group except the youngest, the 15- to 17-year-olds. The survey doesn’t indicate whether women are using other forms of contraception in the interim.