How Effective is Birth Control?

It Depends!

How effective is birth control? Statistics suggest that the young, those who are not married, and the poor are far more apt to get pregnant than they might have supposed. The belief that pregnancy is unlikely when using contraception persuades women to have sex at a time when a pregnancy would prove detrimental, and also persuades them to have sex with men who may be inappropriate choices as fathers of their children.

Contraception supporters frequently offer statistics to convince young women that they can safely engage in sex. The overall failure rate is 12.9%, meaning that 13 out of a hundred sexually active, contracepting women will be pregnant within 12 months. The Pill has an 8% failure rate, and withdrawal has a 27% failure rate. Most women accept this information at face value, and conclude that pills or condoms protect them.

Here is a table at showing these stats, as well as others:

How Effective is Birth Control

(After clicking the link, you may need to scroll down, and click Page 2.)

If you clicked the link, you may have seen this advice below the chart:

"Choosing a birth control method based on how well it works is important, but there are other things to keep in mind when choosing a form of birth control. These include:

  • how easy a particular birth control method is to use
  • how much a particular birth control method costs
  • whether a person has a health condition or is taking medication that will interfere with how well a particular birth control method works"

Notice that there is no advice given to consider the following when making choices about sex and contraception:

  • relationship type
  • age
  • income

Showing statistics broken down in this way would allow a woman (or teen) to see the failure rate most applicable to her own situation. One wonders why there is no breakdown according to demography, especially on a site devoted children!

However, a 1999 study published by the Alan Guttmacher Institute, the research arm of Planned Parenthood, does break down contraceptive failure rates by these demographic characteristics.

How effective is birth control, really? Well, for a poor teenager who is not married but living with her boyfriend, the Pill has a failure rate of 48.4%. If she kicked her boyfriend out of the house, or if she married him, her probability of pregnancy drops to 12.9%. At the other extreme, a middle-aged, middle-class married woman has a 3% chance of getting pregnant after a year on the Pill.

The results for the condom are even more dramatic. Over 70% of teens who are poor, not married, but living with their boyfriends who use the male condom will be pregnant within a year. By contrast, the middle-aged, middle-class married woman has a 6% chance of pregnancy after a year of condom use.

What is going on here? Several factors are driving the differences in failure rates:

  • Fertility
  • Maturity
  • Commitment
  • Amount of sexual activity

Young women are more fertile than older women, so they are more likely to get pregnant no matter which contraceptive method they use. The less mature, and possibly less stable individuals may not be using their contraception correctly or regularly. Married couples are committed to each other, and this makes it easier for married women to negotiate regular condom use. Finally, cohabiting women have sex more frequently than single women, so they have a greater chance of getting pregnant.

The government promotes contraception most heavily among the poor, the young, and the single, because their children are the most likely to become dependent on state support. Yet these targeted groups are the ones most likely to experience contraceptive failure. The commonly quoted failure rates of 8% for the Pill and 15% for the condom are not applicable to those same groups, not by a long shot.

The false sense of security created by inflated success rates of contraception may very well seduce women into sexual situations that can’t sustain a child, and with men who would not make good fathers. These women would be far better off postponing sexual activity, or developing a healthy relationship, or finishing high school. Yet the federal government spends approximately $12 on contraceptive education for every dollar it spends on abstinence education.

So how effective is birth control? Well, it depends on your demographic. And without the correct information, some teens are making very poor choices.

Read more about contraception at

Plan B is the new Plan A: the Emergency Contraction Pill, how it shifts incentives regarding sexual behavior, and may increase the spread of STDs

How is abortion an extension of contraception? Read this article about how one couple sought to have an abortion of their twin sons, just because they wanted a daughter: Sex Selection

Take action! Learn about Preserving the Ecosystem of Marriage.

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