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Study: One-Third of College Women Lied About Contraception Use

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July 10, 2013 by Robert Franklin, Esq.

The subject of women who intentionally become pregnant without the knowledge or consent of their partners has always intrigued me. There’s an enormous amount of literature on the subject of “unplanned,” “unwanted,” “accidental,” etc. pregnancies, but those terms have always sounded like euphemisms, cop-outs. After all, in an era of safe, reliable and cheap contraception, how is it that any pregnancy is truly “accidental?”

What I look for in a study of the subject is the nitty-gritty of the communication between the partners about the possibility of conception. What did they say to each other about the matter? Did she say, “Don’t worry, I’m on the pill?” Did they say anything at all? If they said nothing, was there an understanding that “whatever happens, happens?” To my knowledge, no one has asked those questions.

So the notion that all pregnancies that weren’t explicitly agreed to qualify as “accidents” paints with far too broad a brush. The subtleties of human communication, both verbal and otherwise, together with the seemingly infinite ability of humans to behave irresponsibly make the subject of what is and what is not an “accidental” pregnancy far more complex than the word suggests. Put simply, I’d like to know a lot more than we do about what really goes on behind closed doors.

That said, this article sketches some of the basics, a few of the starting points that may give us an idea of what we’re dealing with when we delve into the issue of just who knows what, who intends what, who wants what and who’s surprised by what when it comes to conception (Psychology Today, 2/5/09). It’s not a new article, but it has some good information.

Of the millions of pregnancies reported annually in the United States, about half are considered unintended or unplanned.

That’s probably taken from data produced by the Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. That organization figures that about 2.6 million “unintended” pregnancies in the United States every year. If you count about 4.2 million live births plus about 1.2 million abortions, that’s about 5.4 million pregnancies. (Of course there are more than that that spontaneously abort early on and a few that end in stillbirth, but the number of the former is unknown and that of the latter is small.) So you have somewhere around half of all births considered to be unplanned.

And that’s always impressed me. How in the world can there be so many unplanned pregnancies when there are so many easy, cheap options for contraception? It just doesn’t add up.

At the same time, nine in ten women report using birth control—the most popular of which is more than 90 percent effective.

So if 90% of sexually active women use birth control that’s 90% effective, there’s no way that adds up to a 50% unwanted pregnancy rate. Of course some of the slack is taken up by people using contraception wrongly, using contraception with a lower effectiveness rate, etc. But still, it looks like there’s something else at work. And there is.

Among other things, all those sexually active women who say they’re on the pill, may take it as a general rule, but, as we know, rules are made to be broken. It seems that many of those women are selective when they take the pill and when they don’t.

Melinda Spohn, a social worker and researcher at Spokane Falls Community College in Washington, decided to study why so many of her clients told her that their pregnancies were unplanned, despite the variety of easily available birth control.

Some of the women admitted that they had not used birth control with guys who had appealing characteristics. To determine whether such behavior is widespread, Spohn surveyed nearly 400 women at two community colleges. More than a third of women said they had risked pregnancy in the past with men who had attractive qualities—such as commitment to the relationship, good financial prospects or the desire for a family—but hadn't discussed the possibility of pregnancy with their partner. It was unclear how many women actually became pregnant.

Now, it seems clear that this is far from a definitive study. The women chosen were enrolled at one of two community colleges, meaning that they don’t represent the universe of all women in the United States, all sexually active women or even all female college enrollees. But what the study strongly suggests is the need for more research into exactly what Spohn inquired about – what percentage of sexually-active women sometimes lie about their use of birth control in order to become pregnant by a man they deem a good candidate?

That’s Question One. For me, Question Two would involve just how they go about convincing the man not to protect himself against fathering a child he doesn’t want. Again, of what exactly do those communications consist? And what do the men think when they’re told “I’m on the pill?” Do they believe her unequivocally? Do they have reservations?

Whatever the precise answers to those questions are, what Spohn’s findings strongly suggest is that it’s extremely common for women to either lie or mislead about using birth control for the purpose of conceiving a child. Spohn has some good advice for men on that subject.

Spohn contends that women have a built-in biological desire to reproduce with men who are good providers. She presented her pregnancy survey at the Human Behavior and Evolution Society's annual meeting. Her advice to men: "Beware!"

Beware indeed. In the same vein with my wondering about communications between the sexes about birth control, comes my question to Spohn “What does that mean?” That is, in practice, what does it mean for a man to “beware?”

One way is to abstain from sex, but for most people that’s not a realistic option. Another would be to get a vasectomy, but particularly for younger men who may want a child in the future, just not now, permanent (or hard to reverse) surgery doesn’t make sense. So as usual, we’re down to the condom.

Now, I’m not a fan of men who complain that they don’t like condoms, but they’re not very thrilled about producing a child they don’t want and paying to support it for 18 years either. From where I stand, it looks a lot better to have a slightly reduced sensation during sex than an unconsented-to child support order. In short, men’s contraceptive choices are few and, in the case of condoms, not terribly effective, but that’s the status quo until RISUG or a male pill gets approved. It’s not ideal, but it’s what there is.

But here’s the other problem: she says she’s on the pill, so what’s he supposed to do? If he wears a condom anyway, it communicates one of three possible things – that he has an STD, that he thinks she has an STD or he thinks she’s lying about the pill. None of those is exactly an aphrodisiac.

It puts a man in a bind. If it were me, I’d say something like “I know from experience that my sperm are extremely viable, so I really have to play it extra safe.” None of that may be true, but it’s the best cover I can think of. If she still persists, blow her off.

Among the panoply of weird aspects of family law is the fact that his biological connection to a child automatically gives a man parental obligations, but not necessarily rights. With the one exception of donating to a sperm bank, every biological father in the country can be tagged with the responsibility to pay child support. It doesn’t matter if Mom has kept the child secret from him, maybe for years, maybe until the child is an adult. If he provided the male DNA, the kid is his and he has to pay. End of story.

Rights of course are a different matter. His biological connection may or may not be enough to accord him rights to his child. Different states do different things and the nature of the proceeding in court matters too. Trying to get visitation or custody is a different matter than trying to stop an adoption.

Whatever the case, the point is that men have very limited control over their fertility. If a man has sex with a woman – or in some cases even if he doesn’t – and a child is conceived, he’s responsible. It doesn’t matter that he didn’t want a child, that he thought she’d agreed to not conceive, that she told him she was on the pill, infertile, you name it. The law is fine with her lies, her deceit. There is no downside to her for committing fraud.

So the lesson for men is that, until we have saner laws about men and fatherhood, use the limited resources at your disposal. Does she seem like an angel, someone who’d never lie, never use you, never manipulate a situation? Excellent, she may be all those things. Use a condom anyway. It’s the one and only way to “Beware.”

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