Archive for the 'Contraception' Category

Revisit the Real Pioneers of Family Planning History

Saturday, June 24th, 2017

    

Although I am not much of a historian, I have followed the history of family planning and of the concern about human population growth—and was surprised to learn that two commonly held beliefs are not correct.
Thanks for reading!
Richard

Revise your Ideas of Family Planning History

Malthus was the first person to make the connection between increasing human population causing problems, correct? And, of course, Margaret Sanger was the first to teach poor women about family planning.

Both of these notions about the history of family planning are wrong. These two firsts actually belong to people who have almost been lost to history.

Hong Liangji was a minor governmental official who lived in the Yangzi Valley of China in the 18th and early 19th centuries. He wrote several essays about politics and other subjects. In an essay from 1793 titled “On Governance and Well-being of the Empire” he voiced his view that increasing population would interfere with peaceful rule. Apparently he felt that it was his duty as a Confucian to criticize the emperor. The emperor did not receive this well; he ordered that Hong be decapitated. Fortunately the sentence was reduced to banishment to a minor post.

The background to Hong’s writing was that highly productive new crops allowed China’s population to grow rapidly. This was welcomed by the government, but was recognized by a few as being potentially problematic.

“But in the matter of population, it may be noted that today’s population is… not less than twenty times as large as that one hundred years ago.” Hong wrote. A twenty-fold increase may have been an exaggeration, but his was definitely a time of very rapid population growth.

Hong illustrated his concern with an example. If a family that started with a large home and 3 children on a fair sized farm, at the end of a century they could end up with as many as 100 people (including servants) living in the same house and farming the same area of land. He wrote that the emperor could not stop the people from reproducing, but that harmony could be destroyed by the rapid growth. He observed: “… the resources with which Heaven-and-earth nourish the people are finite.“ He ended this essay on population “The food for one person is inadequate for 10 persons; how could it be adequate for a hundred persons? This is why I am worried about peaceful rule.”

Five years after Hong, Malthus published: “An Essay on the Principle of Population” in 1798. It is no wonder that we usually give Malthus credit for being the first to raise the alarm about population, however, because Hong wrote in Chinese (which few westerners understand), and he ended up in obscurity.

The first person to advocate for family planning was British. In 1823, more than half a century before Sanger was born, Francis Place published pamphlets about family planning for poor women. He taught two methods of birth control, withdrawal and use of a vaginal barrier. Here is a quote he wrote about the latter: “A piece of soft sponge about the size of a small ball attached to a very narrow ribbon and slightly moistened (when convenient) is introduced previous to sexual intercourse and is afterwards withdrawn, and thus by an easy, simple, cleanly and non-indelicate method, in no way injurious to health, not only may much unhappiness and many miseries be prevented, but benefits of an incalculable amount be conferred on society.”

Apparently many rich women knew about “pessaries” to prevent pregnancy, similar to what Place described. However he was the first person to pass this information on to “…the socially less privileged.” One of his pamphlets was named “To the Married of Both Sexes of the Working People and Similarly the Married Sexes in Genteel Life. The pamphlets were distributed widely throughout England, but the establishment called them “diabolical handbills”.

Place’s personal life is interesting, if perhaps antithetical to his later interest in family planning. He came from a poor family, married at age 19 (his wife was just 17) and they had 15 children! of whom 5 died young. Place educated himself by reading voraciously. He started a successful business that he turned over to his children so he could be politically active. Place’s goal was to improve the lives of the poor. He collaborated with some well-known friends, including Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill.

Large families and rapid population growth affect both society and the individual. Hong wrote about the former; I have not been able to find out much about his personal life. Place was concerned about both later in life. His only book: “Illustrations and Proofs of the Principles of Population” was inspired by Malthus.

© Richard Grossman MD, 2017

 

 

Look Where We Need Family Planning the Most

Thursday, April 27th, 2017

“As we crawled through the city, we encountered a crowded slum area. The temperature was well over 100, and the air was a haze of dust and smoke. The streets seemed alive with people. People eating, people washing, people sleeping. People visiting, arguing, and screaming. People thrusting their hands through the taxi window, begging. People defecating and urinating. People clinging to buses. People herding animals. People, people, people, people.”   Ann and Paul Ehrlich in Population Bomb, 1968

Impact = Population x Affluence (consumption) x Technology

                                                Ehrlich and Holdren, 1971

 

Close your eyes for a moment and conjure up an image of overpopulation. Did you picture hundreds of people hanging off a train in India? or dark-skinned crowds in a street in a poor country?

Yes, family planning is important in those scenarios. Voluntary access to modern contraception is important for humanitarian reasons in the global south. You probably know the litany of its benefits: decreased maternal mortality, healthier children, economic savings, progress in standard of living and education, local environmental protection.

However, the need for effective, universal access to family planning and to safe, legal abortion is much more important in rich countries in the global north. This is because of the issue of consumption.

What! you might be asking. The average woman in many African countries has 5 or more children. Niger tops the list; the total fertility rate there is over 7! Surely the population explosion there must be causing problems. Yes, Niger is one of the lowest ranked countries in the UN’s Human Development Index. Repeated drought has caused famine; population pressure and overgrazing cause environmental degradation.

Let’s compare two countries in the Western Hemisphere—the USA and Haiti. They are, respectively, one of the richest and one of the poorest in the world. The carbon footprint of an average person in the USA is about 20 tons of CO2 per year, while that of a Haitian is 0.2 tons—one hundredth of ours! Thus it would take a hundred Haitians to equal the climate damage done by one of us.

Another way to compare the impact of a single person in the two countries is with Ecological Footprint. The ratio between the two countries is 16 to 1. Thus 16 kids of a really large Haitian family would have the same impact of a single-child family in the USA. I have to admit that there are several problems with this comparison: it doesn’t include the two parents, the average Haitian family size is just a little over 3 so I doubt that there are many as large as 16. The legacy of a large family grows over generations. In Niger, if each generation has 7 children, the number of grandchildren would be 49!

The two measures of impact are different. The carbon footprint is global, since carbon emissions into the atmosphere spread over the whole planet. The Ecological Footprint includes carbon emissions, but it also includes effects that are localized, such as damage to the local environment. In any case, the impact of a person in the USA is much greater than one in Haiti or Niger, and it is spread over the planet.

There is good news! The unintended pregnancy rate (this includes mistimed and unwanted pregnancies) has dropped significantly in the USA. Whereas this rate has hovered at about 50% for years, the latest information is that it has dropped to 45%. The news is especially good for young women, when an unintended pregnancy can be devastating. This decrease is due to increasing use of effective contraception. It is very concerning that the new administration threatens women’s reproductive health and may make contraception and abortion services either unaffordable or totally unavailable.© Richard Grossman MD, 2017

Advocate for LARC (Long Acting Reversible Contraception)

Tuesday, June 28th, 2016

IUD

This is a picture of an IUD in a mockup of a uterus.

The potential of LARCs (Long Acting Reversible Contraception) is so great that I am advocating that all voters advocate for them to be paid for by government. The savings–both financial and in terms of human potential–are enormous!


 

Your doctor tells you that she can prescribe either of two treatments, but that one is 20 times as likely to fail as the other. Which would you choose?

Over a quarter of women in the USA use birth control pills, which fail much more frequently than Long Acting Reversible Contraception. LARCs, as they are nicknamed, are amazingly effective yet not used as frequently as one might hope.

IUDs (Intrauterine Devices) are the most commonly used LARCs. There are four available now; they are all made out of flexible plastic in the shape of a “T”. Three emit a tiny amount of hormone into the woman’s uterus, where it is most effective. The fourth IUD uses copper to gain effectiveness. IUDs are usually well tolerated, although sometimes they can increase cramps or change menstrual flow. The best medical knowledge is that IUDs do not work by aborting pregnancies.

IUDs can stay in place for a maximum of 3 to 10 years, depending on which type. Since there is a string attached, they are usually easy to remove. The string also allows the woman to check that it is in the correct place. The pregnancy rate is vanishingly small—only a couple of LARC users in 1,000 will conceive each year. This statistic for “the pill” is much higher—almost 50 per thousand will experience an unplanned pregnancy. Apparently the high failure rate of oral contraceptives in the USA is due to noncompliance. In Europe the failure rate is significantly lower; European women take their birth control pills more regularly.

There are two major drawbacks to both IUDs and the implant: they are expensive and they need to be placed by an experienced clinician. IUDs have a further drawback—bad press.

It used to be that only women with health insurance or a plump checking account could afford LARCs, but that is changing. Thanks to the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”), any woman with insurance, including Medicaid, can get her chosen birth control without copay. In addition, one IUD, Liletta®, is priced much lower than the others. Here in Colorado there is a program that provides contraception, including LARCs, at little or no cost.

Placing an IUD is not difficult for a trained practitioner. The opening of a woman’s cervix may be tight is she hasn’t borne a child, but a little local anesthesia and gentle dilatation will help with the insertion.

The other type of LARC is the implant, Nexplanon®, which is as effective as an IUD. It is a thin plastic rod that is inserted under the skin of the woman’s arm, where it can stay for up to 3 years. It emits a hormone that is very effective in preventing pregnancy. Although it is in a very low level in the woman’s blood, it is sufficient to change menstrual patterns; most women with Nexplanon® will have spotting or breakthrough bleeding. Perhaps this is why less than 1% of women in the USA choose an implant, whereas about 6% use an IUD.

Unfortunately, reproductive health has become a political football. Here in Colorado a grant demonstrated that access to LARCs can give young women a better chance in life by decreasing teen pregnancies. By taking away the consideration of expense, the use of LARCs expanded 4 fold. Nevertheless, the false fear that IUDs might abort pregnancies kept our legislators from continuing funding to provide this effective contraception. The best way to prevent abortions is with effective birth control!

Ohio took a tip from Colorado with a program to provide LARCs. Part of that state’s motivation is to lower their infant mortality rate. They are targeting young teens and women who have just had a child, since these two groups are at high risk of having an infant die if they were to get pregnant. They also note that the state saves almost $6 for every dollar invested in LARCs.

Ohio has been proactive in another way. Some healthcare providers have misconceptions about IUDs. They think that they should only be used if a woman already has delivered a baby, or that an IUD makes a woman more susceptible to sexually transmitted infections, or teens shouldn’t use IUDs, or that IUDs can lead to sterility. All of these perceptions are wrong! Indeed, almost every woman can safely use an IUD, and start her family as soon as it is removed.

Safe, effective contraception is an important step in empowering women. We should advocate for making LARCs available to all women!

© Richard Grossman MD, 2016

Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States.