NYC Gets Personal (and Particular) About Birth Control

It's the first municipality to center an awareness campaign around intrauterine devices, the most effective form of birth control that few women choose. Will others follow?
by | October 9, 2015
IUDs are 99 percent effective at preventing pregnancy. (Shutterstock)

Sexual awareness campaigns aren’t new. Cities have been promoting condom use, STD testing and general safe sex practices for decades. But New York City took things a step further this week by trying to raise awareness for a particular female birth control method with its "Maybe the IUD" campaign.

The five-year initiative began with brightly colored posters throughout the city reading: “You spent the night in Brooklyn, but you left your birth control in Staten Island. Maybe the IUD is right for you.”

Baltimore and Tulsa implemented similar campaigns, but New York City is the first to call attention to intrauterine devices (IUDs) and “frame the conversation around the idea of reproductive justice. This is the Department of Health teaming up with sexual health organizations to remove barriers and misinformation [that] women, especially low-income women and women of color, face with their sexual health,” said Deborah Kaplan, assistant commissioner of New York City’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

Inserted into a women’s uterus, IUDs are a long-term but reversible form of birth control that doesn't protect against STDs. During its heyday in the early 1970s, 10 percent of women were using IUDs. By 2002, that number had dropped to 2 percent. IUD usage fell when research linked the device to infertility and pelvic inflammatory disease, but further research debunked such studies. The devices are now a favorite of female doctors -- 42 percent use it as their primary form of birth control. The number of other women using them, however, remains much lower -- only from 5 percent in 2002 and 7 percent in 2013 of women aged 15-44.

IUDs are currently the most effective form of birth control, with a 0.05 percent failure rate. Oral contraceptives, in contrast, have a 9 percent failure rate since most women occasionally skip pills or forget to take them at the same time every day. Since six out of 10 pregnancies in New York City are reportedly unplanned, the department of health decided to educate sexually active women on more effective forms of birth control.

New York City created an IUD task force in 2013 to come up with a plan to share information and resources for women who would benefit from one. Although the new ads revolve around the IUD, there isn’t a particular percentage of women the city would like to see with one.

“The threshold for success shouldn’t be the number of women who get them, because they aren’t for every women," said Megan Kavanaugh, senior research scientist at the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive health organization. "Not every woman wants to have something inserted inside of her, just like not every woman is able to take a daily pill.”

(NYC Department of Health)

Kaplan agrees that the ads shouldn’t be seen as a push to get all New York City women with one.

“We just want to pique interest -- hence the ‘maybe’ on the posters.”

While it’s not clear what the rest of five-year initiative will look like, Kaplan hopes to see other cities implement public awareness campaigns to educate women on their birth control options.

“Just in the first week, we’ve had interest from other city governments and organizations," she said. "Other cities could definitely benefit from something like this. Based on the feedback I’ve gotten, people are realizing there are other ways to do sexual health awareness."