What Is Up With the Anti-Birth Control Rhetoric On Social Media?

Hello, everyone! Like any cataclysmic earthquake, the overturning of Roe v. Wade was preceded by tremors warning us of the danger to come. One of those tremors was the rising popularity of anti-birth control rhetoric amongst young women on social media. Somewhere between Loretta Lynn penning a song in celebration of the sexually liberating powers of “The Pill,” and the Supreme Court overturning the nationwide right to abortion, an insidious narrative took root on social media, demonizing hormonal birth control, and leading unsuspecting women back to “nursery hill.”

Credit: Emma Baynes

The advantages of birth control

Contraceptives have been federally legal for both married and unmarried Americans since Eisenstadt v. Baird in 1976. Since then, hormonal contraceptive use has become more commonplace; with a quarter of all women between the ages of 15-49 using this type of birth control, whether it be in the form of a pill, an IUD, or an implant, and 88% of all American women using some form of contraception in their lifetime. The combination of federally legalized abortion and widespread use of hormonal contraceptives contributed to women’s societal advances, resulting in increased attainment of higher education, an increased proportion of women in the workforce, increased average earnings for women in their 30s and 40s, and a reduction in the probability of women living in poverty throughout their lifetimes.

Educational and monetary advantages aside, birth control gives women the choice to control their own futures and have a child on their terms. Without contraception, many women end up having children earlier in life, and have shorter lengths of time between births, which prevents them from creating long-term plans for the future, and can result in missed opportunities for higher education and high paying jobs. And with birth control like the pill, an IUD, or an implant, the choice of contraception rests firmly in the woman’s hands, which not only gives the best protection against unwanted pregnancies, but also allows women to have casual intimacy without worrying about their partner providing contraception.

There are also substantial biological advances to using a hormonal birth control method over non-hormonal methods like condoms. With typical use, the pill has between 91% and 93% efficacy at preventing unwanted pregnancies, while methods like the IUD and implant have a 99% percent success rate. What’s more, hormonal birth control like the pill can reduce period symptoms, improve acne, and aid in treating PCOS (polycystic ovarian syndrome) and endometriosis. It’s also been associated with reducing the “risk of ovarian, endometrial, and colon cancer.”

Credit: Bedsider

The side effects of birth control

Like any medication, hormonal birth control has side effects. For hormonal contraceptives, side effects can include headaches, nausea, irregular periods, mood changes, weight gain, and changes in libido. Some hormonal contraceptives, like the combination pill (a mix of estrogen and progestin), the patch, and the vaginal ring, have also been associated with a higher risk of blood clots, although the number is still very small, with one one study showing the rate to be approximately 4 in every 10,000 women. But every person’s body reacts differently. For some women, birth control is a godsend, while for others, it can be more problematic.

The campaign against hormonal birth control

There is no denying that hormonal birth control can cause side effects, and it’s crucial that each individual ways the pros and cons of this type of contraceptive before use. However, while the scientific consensus on hormonal birth control evenly weighs its benefits and risks, there is an entire side of the internet devoted to ignoring the advantages of birth control in favor of decrying it as toxic, unnatural, and even dangerous. Through Tiktoks, Instagram posts, and Youtube videos, anti-birth control advocates use their platforms to persuade women to ditch hormonal birth control and replace it with “natural” fertility awareness methods, such as tracking body temperature and cervical mucus. With monikers like “hormone coach” and “fertility coach,” these influencers claim to be able to help women return to their “natural” state of womanhood, with much of the rhetoric alluding to reclaiming a femininity destroyed by modern technological advances.

These influencers prefer a contraceptive method like fertility awareness, because it requires nothing but a thermometer to measure body temperature, and a little knowledge of one’s menstrual cycle. Armed with these tools, these influencers claim that women can take control of their own fertility through an intimate understanding of their body, therefore allowing them to have sex without fear of an unintended pregnancy. There are also apps that provide the ability to “track” one’s fertility. One such app, Natural Cycles, markets itself as “effective,” “tailored to you,” and “hormone free.” It also claims to be “93% effective,” comparable to typical use of the Pill. Compared to taking a daily pill, or inserting an IUD, Natural Cycles makes the whole process seem effortless, promising to help users “know [their] fertility and take control of [their] cycle” by taking their daily temperature, adding that data into the app, and letting the app’s algorithm determine whether it’s safe for them to have unprotected sex, or whether they should abstain.

The only issue is that Natural Cycles, and cycle tracking in general, is never as effective or as easy it seems. For one, the menstrual cycle, and the female body, are a lot more complex than an algorithm would make them seem. Planned Parenthood cautions against relying too heavily on natural family planning methods such as these, as they require daily discipline, a willingness to abstain from sex on high-risk days, and a deep understanding of one’s own fertility cycle, which can be affected by outside stressors like sleep conditions, stress, or illness. Crucially, fertility awareness methods are “not [a] good method for people with irregular menstrual cycles,” and even for women with predictable periods, “FAMs are about 77-98% effective: that means 2-23 out of 100 couples who use FAMs will get pregnant each year, depending on which method(s) are used.”

Aside from mentioning its 93% efficacy rate, Natural Cycles doesn’t touch on the difficulties of using its app perfectly, or even typically. From the design of its website, with its bubbly text and friendly green circle declaring its user “non-fertile,” a casual reader might assume that using Natural Cycles is not only as easy as taking a daily birth control pill, but just as protective. But the reality is less rosy. One Guardian article about several women’s experiences with the app revealed that the app’s “93%” statistic is not based on randomized clinical trials, but volunteered data collected from its own users, which is not only misleading, but a deliberate bait-and-switch that gives the app the veneer of scientific approval without any corresponding evidence.

The author of the article detailed how difficult she found it to keep up with the daily temperature readings, feeling “panicked about missing my measuring window in the morning. On the pill, it didn’t matter if I’d just woken up, was lying down or standing up when I took it. With Natural Cycles, the slightest motion seemed to count.” The author became pregnant after using the cycle tracking app, as did several other women interviewed in the article.

Natural family planning is less effective than hormonal birth control, and can result in more unwanted pregnancies. So why are influencers telling women to trust it? And who is behind this push to ditch the pill?

An example of an influencer’s Natural Cycles sponsored post

A return to “natural” womanhood?

“Your period is not a burden. Bleeding is a blessing.” So says one Instagram wellness influencer, who markets herself as a “period coach” in her bio. The influencer, who goes by the name Rooted.in.Gaia, sells period coaching, and promises to help women “heal period pain and PMS,” as well as help them “experience connection to [their] period, a relationship to [their] own blood & womb.”

In one post, she criticizes hormonal birth control for severing the connection between women and their fertility:

From the time we begin bleeding, it is so ingrained in us that:

🩸we can get pregnant SO easily
🩸birth control fixes everything
🩸it’s okay to not have a period

None of which are true!

Women have been purposefully disconnected from their cycle, period & power.

Why isn’t the conversation focused on how to SUPPORT our fertility instead of how to suppress it?

Why are band-aid fixes the norm, leaving underlying health issues to wreak havoc & manifest into major fertility issues years, even decades later?

Why have we been made to fear one of the most beautiful aspects of being a woman?

There truly is an awakening happening right now.

People are starting to understand that taking artificial hormones & having a foreign object surgically placed inside of our yoni is NOT going to help you.

Yes it some cases it is necessary.

But often, birth control is used out of habit & based on a fundamental lack of education & awareness that women have around their bodies.

It’s time to wake up to your power through the cycles of your womb.

To stop fearing the most magnificent process of creation & death that we have the honor of experiencing.

Wanting women to have more medical information about how their menstrual cycles work is a good thing, but what Rooted.in.Gaia and so many other fertility awareness influencers promise is much more than that. They promise to help women return to their true “natural” selves, restoring their body’s womanly power that supposedly rests in our menstrual cycle. But while hormonal birth control pills have proven to be effective at lessening the symptoms of debilitating illnesses like PCOS and endometriosis, as well as reducing PMS and regulating periods, period coaches have no ability to do any of that. Not only do these women have absolutely NO credentials, but they use their own anecdotal experience to persuade women to trust their false expertise, meaning that women suffering from real menstrual-related problems will continue to be in pain. Plus, they’re all selling something, whether it’s a program to get off birth control, or one-on-one period coaching.

Measuring your daily body temperature and your cervical mucus might help you better predict your ovulation phases, but it can’t reduce PCOS symptoms or help alleviate endometriosis. And the idea that having a period is not only necessary, but essential to womanhood, is flat out wrong. In reality, “The whole purpose of your menstrual cycle is to prepare your uterus for pregnancy each time you ovulate. If you don’t want to become pregnant, there’s absolutely no health reason you need to have a menstrual period.” For many women, periods are inconvenient, messy, and painful. They are not symbols of the “divine wombspace,” they are monthly trials that women have had to endure for millenia. Hormonal birth control gives women the ability to skip periods entirely. Why would influencers want women to be in more pain, when they all promise to help women return to their natural state of feminine bliss?

The path from anti-abortion to anti-birth control

It’s all very confusing until you dig beneath the yoni-steaming and period coaching and fertility roadmaps and discover that the foundation of this ideology is based on anti-abortion rhetoric. Consider this Mother Jones article, where the author attended the anti-abortion group Heartbeat International’s annual conference, and participated in workshops dedicated to strategizing about the “unbiblical” nature of contraception. One Powerpoint got straight to the point, noting with dismay that “the goal of birth control is preventing sexual intercourse from resulting in its natural, intended biological result: children.”

This article, as well as another article about the connection between anti-abortion activists and anti-birth control influencers, draws a line between anti-abortion groups’ lobbying and the susceptibility of wellness influencers to the rhetoric that hormonal birth control is “unnatural” and “unhealthy.” These influencers blame birth control for causing PCOS and endometriosis (it doesn’t), claim that doctors use it as a problematic one-size-fits-all-solution (they don’t), and even claim that it makes women less attractive to men, or tricks women into choosing the “wrong” man based on pheromones (it can’t do this.) For women who already identify with the non-toxic lifestyle, and are interested in more ways of making their body as “natural” as possible, getting off of hormonal birth control seems like the perfect solution. But as I mentioned above, this leaves women to rely on less effective contraceptive methods like condoms or natural family planning, which in turn results in unwanted pregnancies. And all of this plays right into the hands of anti-abortion groups, whose goal is to return women to their traditional societal status as wives and mothers, especially now that the overturning of Roe v. Wade makes it even more difficult for women to end their unintended pregnancies.

Lest you think it’s all a web of conspiracy theories, look no further than those funding these anti-birth control campaigns. In 2019, The Guardian revealed that a natural family planning app, Femm, was funded in part by The Chiaroscuro Foundation, whose chairman Sean Fielder is a social conservative devoted to “reduc[ing] abortion.” Or 28, another “Free Cycle-Based Fitness” app that claims that “women have been locked in the passenger seats of their own bodies—our education system failed us, doctors gaslit us, and hormonal birth control promised freedom but tricked our bodies into dysfunction and pain.” The app purports to give its users workout and wellness tips based on their menstrual cycle data, and claims that “most users who follow its nutritional guidelines will experience more manageable symptoms of PMS.” The app raised $3.2 million in seed-funding from right-wing billionaire Peter Thiel, who has donated enormous sums of money to anti-abortion congressional candidates like Blake Masters and J.D Vance. Coincidentally, 28 is also connected to Evie, a conservative women’s magazine whose “fertility” section is dedicated to articles demonizing birth control (and an article pondering if Q-Anon’s “Q isn’t right after all?).

Anti-abortion groups have always known that their virulent rhetoric doesn’t sit well with the majority of modern women, and so they’ve become slyer in their tactics. Presenting hormonal birth control as toxic, unnatural, and unfeminine is a clever way of achieving their anti-abortion goals without having to discuss unsavory topics like forcing women to carry the half-formed skulls of dead fetuses to term. The purpose of these campaigns is to take away women’s bodily autonomy by taking away their options. They want to turn the national tide against hormonal contraception so that women can no longer legally access these methods, and then they want these women to have unintended pregnancies, and be forced to carry those pregnancies to term because these groups have outlawed abortion. But to hear it from their mouths, these groups believe they’re restoring women’s lost “bodily autonomy” that’s been taken “through devices, pills, drugs, and surgeries,”

We can’t buy into this insidious rhetoric. It’s one thing to posit that women should be able to choose between using hormonal contraceptives and natural family planning, but it’s quite another to launch covert marketing campaigns with misleading and factually incorrect information for the purpose of making women think that hormonal birth control is unsafe and unnatural. In our current system, women have the choice to pick between contraceptive options. In the anti-abortion lobby’s ideal world, there is no contraception at all. It’s an elegant trap that they’ve laid for us. Our only hope is to avoid falling into it.

Credit: Emma Darvick

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