Human Pregnancy and Birth

Contraception and Birth Control

The prevention of a pregnancy comes under the terms contraception or birth control. Strictly speaking, contraception refers to preventing the sperm and egg from joining. Both terms are, however, frequently used interchangeably.

Contraceptive Methods
Method Examples Failure Rate in Typical Use Over 12 Months
Barrier male condom, female condom, sponge, cervical cap, diaphragm, spermicides 15 to 24%
Hormonal oral, patch, vaginal ring 8%
injection 3%
implant less than 1%
Other natural family planning 12 to 25%
withdrawal 27%
sterilization less than 1%

Table lists common methods of contraception. The failure rates listed are not the ideal rates that could be realized, but the typical rates that occur. A failure rate is the number of pregnancies resulting from the method’s use over a twelve-month period. Barrier methods, such as condoms, cervical caps, and diaphragms, block sperm from entering the uterus, preventing fertilization. Spermicides are chemicals that are placed in the vagina that kill sperm. Sponges, which are saturated with spermicides, are placed in the vagina at the cervical opening. Combinations of spermicidal chemicals and barrier methods achieve lower failure rates than do the methods when used separately.

Nearly a quarter of the couples using barrier methods, natural family planning, or withdrawal can expect a failure of the method. Natural family planning is based on the monitoring of the menstrual cycle and having intercourse only during times when the egg is not available. A woman’s body temperature may rise a degree Celsius at ovulation and the cervical mucus may increase in volume and become more pliable. These changes give a general indication of when intercourse is more or less likely to result in fertilization. Withdrawal involves the removal of the penis from the vagina during intercourse, before ejaculation occurs. This is a risky method with a high failure rate due to the possible presence of sperm in the bulbourethral gland’s secretion, which may enter the vagina prior to removing the penis.

Hormonal methods use synthetic progesterone (sometimes in combination with estrogen), to inhibit the hypothalamus from releasing FSH or LH, and thus prevent an egg from being available for fertilization. The method of administering the hormone affects failure rate. The most reliable method, with a failure rate of less than 1 percent, is the implantation of the hormone under the skin. The same rate can be achieved through the sterilization procedures of vasectomy in the man or of tubal ligation in the woman, or by using an intrauterine device (IUD). IUDs are inserted into the uterus and establish an inflammatory condition that prevents fertilized eggs from implanting into the uterine wall.

Compliance with the contraceptive method is a strong contributor to the success or failure rate of any particular method. The only method that is completely effective at preventing conception is abstinence. The choice of contraceptive method depends on the goals of the woman or couple. Tubal ligation and vasectomy are considered permanent prevention, while other methods are reversible and provide short-term contraception.

Termination of an existing pregnancy can be spontaneous or voluntary. Spontaneous termination is a miscarriage and usually occurs very early in the pregnancy, usually within the first few weeks. This occurs when the fetus cannot develop properly and the gestation is naturally terminated. Voluntary termination of a pregnancy is an abortion. Laws regulating abortion vary between states and tend to view fetal viability as the criteria for allowing or preventing the procedure.