Although women get abortions for many reasons, the majority of women choosing abortion do so because they got pregnant when they didn’t want to be. It stands to reason that at the time of the abortion is a perfect time to help women start using highly effective contraceptives. One of the most effective methods, the IUD, is an ideal choice for women without plans to become pregnant in the short-term because once inserted it is effective for 7-12 years (depending on which IUD is chosen) and requires no ongoing maintenance, unlike other methods which require visits to clinics and remembering to take a pill daily, change a patch or ring, or get a shot every 3 months. All of this ongoing maintenance requires time and money.
So the IUD offers women a simple, long-term, easily reversible contraception that is as effective as tubal ligation (having one’s tubes “tied”). It is also the most cost-effective method available (when used long-term; the costs over the first few years are higher than other methods). So what’s the hold-up? Why do only 5.5% of Americans use IUDs?
Women do not get the most effective contraceptive care for the same reasons that many Americans don’t get the most effective health care in general. We have a system built on a fee-for-service model that relies on short-term membership in private insurance plans, which disincentivizes investment in preventive, cost-effective care that has up-front costs. We have a system that bills per service rather than for caring for a patient. We have a system in which pharmaceutical and device companies raise their prices significantly with impunity. (We also have a culture that systematically misinforms teens and adults alike about sex and contraception, but you can read about that here, here, and here).
Many women with private insurance find that their insurance does not cover one of the most effective, and the most cost-effective, methods available. The IUD itself can cost over $800, with the insertion fee from the physician easily bringing the cost to $1200 or more. Because many young people will change from insurer to insurer as they change jobs, the companies generally do not want to invest that kind of money into pregnancy prevention for their members. What makes sense for the individual, or even our society as a whole, often does not make sense for a profit-driven insurance company.
Billing is another barrier. Unfortunately, all clinics providing reproductive health care must pay attention to their bottom line. They can’t provide the vital services they offer if they don’t stay afloat. So unnecessary requirements, such as lack of reimbursement from insurance companies for IUD insertion done on the same day as an abortion, substantially hamper access for women. The result has often been that women have to wait until their follow-up appointment to get their IUD inserted, meaning they have to go through another procedure (when the IUD could easily have been inserted in less than 1 minute if done immediately after the abortion) and also have to make it to a follow-up appointment, which means more time off from work, more money for child care and transportation, and often more money for the visit to the clinic.
Barriers within the medical system also get in the way; some physicians believe that inserting an IUD immediately after abortion is more likely to cause complications and more likely to self-expulse (or fall out).
Because of these barriers, many women who want to use an IUD for contraception after an abortion are leaving without one. Although they are given follow-up appointments and theoretically should as a result have good access to IUDs, the fact is that many women are slipping through the cracks.
Fortunately, a new study shows that IUD insertion immediately after an abortion is safe and effective, and most importantly prevents repeat unintended pregnancy. 575 women who wanted an IUD after their abortion were randomly assigned to two groups: one group that had the IUD inserted immediately while the other was given a follow-up appointment for the IUD two to six weeks after the abortion. Not surprisingly based on prior studies, the group that had the IUD inserted immediately after the abortion had a slightly higher expulsion rate (5% vs. 2.7%) than the delayed insertion group. Though this might sound like an argument against immediate insertion of IUDs after abortion, what’s actually important is how the individual woman is affected. Despite this higher expulsion rate, NONE of the women in the immediate insertion group were pregnant within six months, as opposed to FIVE in the delayed insertion group. All of those pregnancies occurred among the 29% of women who never managed to get their IUD after their abortion.
Bottom line: immediate IUD insertion after abortion is safe, effective, saves money, and most importantly, prevents unintended pregnancy! I hope that policy-makers and doctors will take note of this study and take action to break down the medical, policy, insurance, and financial barriers that keep women from getting the best care possible.