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When Birth Control Fails: Unplanned pregnancies aren’t just for teens

Our son was fast asleep. The candles were flickering, the champagne was flowing, the jazz was playing, and the earth was most definitely moving. My husband reached to remove the condom – only to find that it wasn’t there anymore. Somewhere in the throes of passion, our only form of birth control had gone AWOL.

Suddenly, a romantic interlude turned into a clich’d scene from an after-school special or a John Hughes movie, as two consenting adults with graduate degrees and good credit ratings panicked like horny teenagers in the backseat of a Camaro. We had unprotected sex. I’m ashamed to admit I actually jumped in the shower, hoping I could “wash off” any stray sperm – a birth-control strategy that any middle-schooler could tell you would not be effective. It’s not that we’re opposed to the idea of having another child someday, but not right now, not when we’ve just survived our son’s terrible twos and taken on demanding new roles at work.

A few nervous weeks (and two home pregnancy tests) later, we could relax. Or can we? With more children in the cards “some day,” a vasectomy isn’t an option, and the other forms of birth control available to us – or, rather, to me – seem unduly invasive, risky, or long-term in comparison to the ease and spontaneity of condoms. I would need to take the pill for a month before it would reach its maximum effectiveness; most doctors recommend waiting another two cycles after going off the pill before trying get pregnant in order to get an accurate due date. Implantable devices like IUDs and Implanon have to be inserted and removed by a doctor. The female condom, cap, and sponge are less reliable – and a bit daunting for someone who can’t even put in a contact lens on the first try. None of these birth-control methods are completely effective, and all come with the possibility of scary side effects. In other words, we’re still one condom malfunction away from an unplanned – if not exactly unwanted – pregnancy.

Modern science has taken much of the guesswork out of fertility and conception. So why do women who should know better find themselves coping with pregnancy scares and surprises? Perhaps science is part of the problem. Living in the age of the pill and the patch, it’s easy to fool ourselves into thinking that birth is something we control. Those of us who’ve already planned a pregnancy or two successfully, myself included, are even more confident in our – ahem – impregnability. Though I’ve narrowly escaped becoming one of those statistics, no birth control in the world is one hundred percent effective, and I can’t guarantee that mine won’t fail again.

And why should grownups be any less vulnerable than the likes of Bristol Palin and Levi Johnston? I’m not alone in thinking it can’t happen to me. In recent years the careless or ineffective use of birth control has been the premise of Hollywood comedies (Knocked Up, Juno, Accidentally on Purpose) as well as scientific studies seeking to explain why the rate of unplanned pregnancies in the United States has remained stable even as birth control has become much more widely available. According to the Centers for Disease Control, about half of all pregnancies in this country are “unintended,” despite the fact that “most women of reproductive age use birth control.”

Even more disturbing: women with children are less likely to use effective birth control than women without children, and the rate of unplanned pregnancies among mothers is climbing precipitously, according to the CDC. Indeed, when I confided my pregnancy fears to my circle of mommy friends, I discovered that several of them had scares themselves, let down by methods of birth control that they really shouldn’t have fully trusted in the first place.

And sometimes it was more than just a scare. Molly, a lawyer who routinely clocks 70-hour workweeks, has always had an irregular cycle, so she hardly noticed when she missed a period, then another one. She was 14 weeks along – well into in her second trimester, in other words – before she realized she was pregnant. Although she and her husband were delighted by this “accident,” Molly couldn’t help feeling sheepish when her OB/GYN demanded to know why she hadn’t made an appointment sooner. And she was consumed by guilt over all the things she felt she should have been doing during those 14 weeks: watching her diet, taking prenatal vitamins, cutting back on her billable hours, shopping for maternity clothes, and reading every pregnancy and baby book on the market. For a woman whose life is one long daily planner, the realization that she had left something so important unplanned shook her to the core.

Another friend, Catherine, was still on maternity leave with her third – and, she thought, last – child when she found out she was pregnant again. Her husband, Matt, came home to find her curled up on the kitchen floor, sobbing. When he heard why, he sat down and joined her. Although they’re now proud parents of four, it took them some time to get used to the idea. (However, it took Catherine no time at all to convince Matt to finally get a vasectomy.) Catherine knew it was perfectly possible to get pregnant while nursing, and she was taking the pill, but she hadn’t been taking it long enough for it to be fully effective. A rookie error, but she simply couldn’t fathom that she might get pregnant so soon after giving birth. Her exhausted body could barely cope with the baby she already had, not to mention her two older children. How could it betray her like that?

But that’s the thing about accidents – they happen. Every mommy knows that, and when it comes to our children, there’s no limit to the precautions we’ll take, books we’ll read, and safety gear we’ll buy to protect them. When it comes to family planning and birth control, why should we be any less vigilant?

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