Poll Finds Birth Control Pill Risk Highly Overestimated

Times Staff Writer

Americans greatly overestimate the health dangers of birth control pills, despite scientific evidence indicating that "the pill saves many more lives than it costs," according to a new Gallup Poll released Tuesday by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

In the survey, 76% of the women and 62% of the men said they believe that there are "substantial risks" in taking the pill, the poll found. And 31% of the women and 27% of the men named cancer as the most serious consequence of pill use, which the college said is also incorrect.

Dispelling a Myth

"We found that Americans exaggerate the risks of birth control pills to an amazing degree," said Dr. Luella Klein, president of the college, which commissioned the study. "We need to dispel the myth that contraception is more dangerous than pregnancy. Except in older women, especially older smokers, the pill saves many more lives than it costs.

"The message of the early years of the birth control pill--of heart attacks and strokes--has gotten through almost too well. The message of today--of the beneficial effects of the pill--as shown by the Gallup Poll, isn't getting through as well."

Klein said there is no clear evidence that birth control pills cause cancer. "It's simply not true," she said, adding that the pill may, in fact, "actually prevent some cancers--ovarian and endometrial cancer--and probably prevent about 3,500 hospitalizations for these illnesses every year."

In the poll, 64% of the women and 59% of the men said that they believe childbearing to be as risky or less risky than taking the pill--another opinion that the college said is not supported by fact. For each 100,000 women taking the pill for one year, Klein said, there are about five pill-related deaths, compared to about 10 deaths per 100,000 women who give birth.

The known risks associated with birth control pills include cardiovascular complications, mostly in women older than 35 who smoke. "The risk from the pill could be reduced below the level of one for each of 100,000 women users if women smokers gave up smoking and those over 40 did not use the pill," Klein said.

High Success Rate

The poll found also that, although women are more knowledgeable about the effectiveness of the pill than they are about other methods of contraception, they still underestimate the success rate of the pill. Nearly half of the women polled guessed that 5 to 20 pregnancies occur for every 100 pill users.

"Only about one-third correctly estimated the low percentage of pregnancies to be expected among pill users--1% to 4% in the first year of use," Klein said.

Of the 55 million women of childbearing age in the United States, Klein said, about 36 million "are trying to prevent pregnancy at any one time."

About 3.3 million of them do not use contraceptives because they fear the health risks, she said. "Women should not reject effective contraceptives because of fear and confusion about their safety," she said.

The survey, conducted in January, covered a nationally representative sample of 1,036 women and 520 men.

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