More Canadian women are ditching the pill and relying on less reliable birth control methods, the Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada (SOCGS) has found. 

The SOCGS survey conducted in 2016 and presented at a June conference also found that 61 per cent of women who have ever been pregnant had at least one unintended pregnancy. However, 75 per cent of those pregnancies were just not well-timed – not necessarily unwanted, the survey found.

The survey of more than 3,200 Canadian women between the ages of 15 and 50 shows that an increasing number of them are choosing condoms over more effective oral contraceptives, while some use the risky withdrawal method. And a significant number of women over the age of 30 said they hadn’t used any contraception at all in the previous six months.  

The SOGC conducted the same survey in 2006, and compared the two sets of data to see how contraception use and attitudes toward birth control changed over the 10 years.

Researchers found that most women are not aware of the many contraception options that exist. The survey also found that women over the age of 30 seem to be shunning the pill, one of the most popular birth control methods in previous decades.

In 2006, 39 per cent of women over 30 said they used oral contraceptives. By 2016, that number dropped to 15.7 per cent. The rate of unintended pregnancies remained relatively unchanged from 2006, however.

The SOCGS is now trying to raise more awareness about contraceptive use and the different types of effective, long-lasting options available to Canadian women. The educational Sex & U website breaks down various methods of birth control, their advantages and disadvantages. 

‘We could do a lot better’

Dr. Amanda Black, the Ottawa obstetrician-gynecologist and professor who led the 2006 and 2016 surveys, said it’s not exactly clear why Canadian women are choosing less effective forms of birth control, and why so many of them are forgoing contraception altogether.

Overall, more than 18 per cent of those surveyed said they never used contraception in the previous six months. Among women aged 30-39, nearly 32 per cent said the same. More puzzling, Dr. Black said, more than half of women over 40 didn’t use any birth control at all.  

Dr. Black said that about 40 per cent of women who reported having sex without any protective measures believed they couldn’t get pregnant. But it’s not clear why.

“We could do a lot better in trying to improve women’s health by ensuring they have good access (to contraceptives) and knowledge,” Dr. Black told in a telephone interview.

She said there seem to be “a lot of misconceptions” about the pill, and very little knowledge in general about other effective, long lasting forms of birth control, such as intra-uterine devices, or IUDs.

Across all age groups, more women reported relying on condoms, which was the top contraceptive choice for 40.8 per cent of women surveyed in 2016.

Oral contraceptives were still the second-most popular birth control method, at 28.4 per cent, followed by the withdrawal method at 14.7 per cent.

Comparing contraceptives’ efficacy

According to the Sex & U website, 90 out of 1,000 women on the pill will get pregnant within the first year of “typical use,” which accounts for human error and other factors that lead to contraceptive failure.

The failure rate doubles with “typical use” of condoms, which will leave 180 out of 1,000 women pregnant. The withdrawal method is considered “risky,” with about 22 out of 100 women who use it getting pregnant.

The survey also asked women where they get information about contraceptives.

In 2006, 71.3 per cent went to their family doctor, compared to 58.8 per cent in 2016. The number of women who turned to the internet for information doubled, from 25 per cent in 2006 to 50 per cent in 2016. 

Still, only one in five women think the internet is a trustworthy source on the topic – another puzzling finding for Dr. Black. She said she didn’t understand why so many women were still seeking the information online if they thought the internet resources were untrustworthy.

The SOCGS’s main message to women – and their partners – is that “contraception should be a plan, not an afterthought.” The society will be launching a social media campaign to help spread that message, especially aimed at younger women as they return to college and university campuses this fall.