One of the more alarming things I have recently noticed on TikTok has been the misinformation and fear mongering surrounding birth control pills. Creators are claiming that hormonal birth control pills cause cancer and infertility, and many push the “fertility awareness” method as an alternative. The timing of this influx of content is concerning given that access to abortion is now considered restrictive in over half of U.S. states — including Indiana — according to Guttmacher Institute.
The hashtags “birth control” and “getting off birth control” have 3.7 billion and 5.1 million views, respectively. It is not a question that a vast number of people are consuming information about birth control on the TikTok app.
There are many valid concerns surrounding the use and prescription of oral birth control. For one, the burden of protecting against pregnancy falls almost entirely on people with uteruses. Additionally, the use of birth control pills can come with potential side effects including nausea and weight fluctuation. These possible side effects should not be taken lightly, and I absolutely encourage users or people considering oral contraceptives to consult extensively with their doctor before and throughout use to ensure personal wellbeing.
Unfortunately, though, there are plenty of creators spewing distorted information concerning the risks of using oral contraceptives and creating heightened fear and confusion surrounding their use.
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One claim is that oral contraceptives directly raise a person’s risk of cervical and breast cancer at significant rates. In the video linked — which has no references and over 21,000 likes — the data is misrepresented. For one, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) notes that the vast majority of research on the link between cancer risks and oral contraceptive use is observational, meaning there is no way to determine if it is actually birth control causing the cancer, as the behavior and lives of those taking it may differ in other ways.
What the creator in the previous video mentioned is missing is that most cases of cervical cancer are caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV) — a sexually transmitted infection (STI). Users of oral contraceptives may be less likely to use or rely on physical barriers like condoms that can reduce risk of STI transmission, meaning they may be more exposed to HPV and thus are at an increased risk to develop cervical cancer. In addition, the increased risk of breast cancer is relatively minimal, according to the NCI. Oral birth control has further been linked to lower risk of endometrial, colorectal, and ovarian cancers.
If you are interested in watching TikToks about the subject, I actually do recommend these videos by Dr. Jennifer Lincoln and Dr. Allison Rogers who are both trained medical doctors.
The fertility awareness method is advertised by many creators as an alternative to hormonal methods of birth control. This method consists of daily temperature and/or cervical mucus checks that help one track their cycle and understand which days they can get pregnant.
While with perfect use, it could be 99% effective — comparable to most hormonal birth control methods — this does not reflect reality. Human bodies are not perfect. The reliability of the method can be confounded by things like illness, stress, travel and the post-partum state. It is also more difficult to execute if someone has multiple sexual partners and does not protect against STIs. The typical-use pregnancy rate of this method is actually 25% — which is not a number we can ignore. Further, the method is unreliable if the user has any irregularity in their menstrual cycle, and the National Institute of Health reports that menstrual irregularity affects 14% to 25% of women.
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Whether people like it or not, no birth control method is ever going to be used perfectly on a universal level. As a society, we must work to protect each other through accurate and accessible education on the effects and efficacy of all methods of birth control, especially at a time when many people may be stuck carrying unplanned pregnancies without other options.
I celebrate and welcome educating women, a long ignored group in the healthcare world, on their bodies. The fertility awareness method is not necessarily unreliable and hormonal birth control can indeed result in side effects, but the reality is not as simple as many creators on TikTok make it seem. Pregnancy is an incredibly serious situation and those looking to avoid it should have access to every choice possible. In today’s society, modern birth control methods afford women essential levels of freedom and independence from relationships and domesticity.
As I stated in my last column: stop getting all your medical advice off of TikTok. Yes, there can be some value to anecdotal evidence, but the importance of consulting with trained professionals about huge choices concerning your body and perhaps those of others cannot be overstated.
Leila Faraday (she/her) is a freshman studying policy analysis.