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Reducing the U.S. abortion rate

Part 1 of three parts

Contraceptive (Birth Control)
methods for regulating fertility

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The need for contraceptives:

As late as the end of the 19th century, the average woman had to have at least five babies in order to assure that two would reach adulthood. Medical science and public health have since drastically reduced death rates during pregnancy, delivery,  infancy, and childhood. Meanwhile people have become sexually active at a much earlier age -- typically 15 or 16 years-of-age in North America. Women are delaying pregnancy until later in life in order to allow them to obtain education and develop their careers. Many want to limit their number of children to one or two. To achieve this, according to an article i Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health: among opposite-sex couples, either

"...a fertile woman today must practice birth control throughout most of her potential reproductive years--as many as 30 of the roughly 36 years between menarche and menopause." 1

or her husband must.

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Contraceptive techniques are used to prevent pregnancy. Abortifacient methods are used to terminate a pregnancy that has already begun.

Both pro-life and pro-choice advocates agree on the initial sequence of events leading to a developing fetus during opposite-gender sexual behavior:

  1. Ejection of one very lucky spermatozoon among hundreds of million of brother and sister spermatozoa from a testicle.

  2. Ejection of a mature ovum from an ovary.

  3. Fertilization of the ovum by sperm, usually in the fallopian tubes. The fertilized ovum is called a zygote. 2

  4. The ovum develops into a blastocyst, and usually moves into the uterus.

  5. Implantation of the blastocyst in the wall of the uterus.

  6. The blastocyst has perhaps a 40% chance of developing into an embryo, and eventually into a fetus and newborn.

Unfortunately, various individuals and groups have differing definitions of when pregnancy actually begins. 

bullet Pro-life advocates usually define the start of pregnancy at conception during the process in which the sperm merges its genetic material with the ovum, and a unique DNA is produced. They also believe that human personhood starts at that point.

bullet Physicians and the pro-choice movement define pregnancy as starting when the blastocyst implants itself in the uterine wall. 

We will use the medical definition here.

These two definitions differ by about 12 days. This discrepancy is quite significant. If a particular technique allows conception but inhibits implantation, then it would be termed an abortifacient by the pro-life community and a contraceptive by everyone else. Researchers once thought that EC (a.k.a. emergency contraception, or morning-after pill) could work by inhibiting ovulation, conception, or implantation. But subsequent research shows that inhibiting implantation is extremely improbable or impossible. So EC is considered a contraceptive. However, many pro-life groups reject the findings of medical researchers and still claim that EC is an abortifacient. Some claim that EC always works as an abortifacient.

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How contraceptives work:

All contraceptive techniques are barrier methods. That is, they erect a barrier of some type that prevents pregnancy. 

bullet Sometimes the barrier is time: a couple estimates when the woman is about to release an ovum and does not engage in sexual intercourse for an interval before and after the expected time of that event.

bullet Sometimes the barrier is mechanical in nature. For example, sperm are prevented from entering the womb by a layer of latex, as in a condom or diaphragm.

bullet Sometimes the barrier is chemical in nature. An emergency contraceptive pill will prevent ovulation, or will prevent fertilization.

The Roman Catholic and a very few very conservative Protestant denominations prohibit all but the time barrier methods. Only this method is considered natural and acceptable to these faith groups. Yet polls show that relatively few Catholic couples use time barrier methods. Data on birth rates among Roman Catholic couples shows that their family size does not differ significantly from those of Protestant couples. This would seem to indicate that essentially all Roman Catholics are ignoring the instructions of their church on birth control.

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Time-barrier methods: 3

bullet No method: If no contraceptive method is used, a woman has about 1 chance in 50 of becoming pregnant with each act of sexual intercourse. Thus, a couple who enjoys sexual intercourse on a weekly basis will probably find themselves pregnant within a few months - perhaps after their first sexual contact.

bullet Withdrawal: This is sometimes called Coitus Interruptus: This involves the man trying to withdraw his penis before he ejaculates. Unfortunately this method is extremely unreliable. The man tends to be distracted at exactly the time when he needs to have his wits about him. Also, large numbers of sperm are present in the lubricating fluid that is discharged from the penis before ejaculation. They can cause pregnancy even without an ejaculation.

bullet Rhythm Method: The date that the woman will next release a mature ovum is estimated on the basis of the average length of her menstrual period, and the time of her last period. If successful, then the technique prevents live sperm and a live ovum from being present in the fallopian tubes simultaneously. This method has been jokingly referred to as "Vatican Roulette" because it is quite unreliable, and because it was at one time the only method approved by the Roman Catholic church. Any number of factors, including stress, can introduce irregularity into the timing of the release of the ovum, and make the method quite undependable.

bullet Billings Method: The woman observes her vaginal discharge on a daily basis. There are subtle changes in texture, quantity and color which indicate when ovulation is happening. Sexual intercourse is avoided for a while at that time.

bullet Body Temperature Method: The woman measures her body temperature. There is usually a small rise in temperature after ovulation. Sexual intercourse is avoided for a while at that time.

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This topic continues in the next essay

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All essays on this web site are intended to give an general overview of various methods of contraception. Do not rely upon this information when making personal decisions. Please consult your physician or a family planning clinic for professional advice.

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Jill Schwartz and Henry Gabelnick, "Current Contraceptive Research," Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health, Vol. 34, # 6, 2002-NOV/DEC.
  2. For definitions of many pregnancy-related terms, see our Glossary.
  3. The Sexual Health Infocenter has a Guide to Safer Sex which discusses safer sex tools and birth control topics. See:

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Copyright © 1995 to 2016 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Last updated: 2016-JUL-01

Author: B.A. Robinson
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